*** I received a free review copy of the paperback version of this book ***
I really wish I was reviewing this book as part of a critique group or as a beta reader. Then I could wax all enthusiastic about its good points while being clear about what it needs. The trouble is, it's meant to be a finished product and it just isn't. It needs a thorough edit at every level - from structural to line to proof-reading. Also, although the book-setting is globally very pleasing, there are aspects of it I would rethink.
That said, I'm going to try to stick to reviewing what's there, instead of what might be - which is going to be hard.
There are lot of things in this book that are right up my street: astronomy, prehistoric archaeology, aliens, lost explorers, puzzles and mazes, outdoor sports. Ochs is at his best when he's dealing with labyrinths filled with obstacles: man-made labyrinths and the natural wadis (dry river beds of the desert region). Especially the wadis. Clearly wadi-bashing is his first love. At the start, I liked it a lot but by the end of the book, which was supposed to be the climax, the labyrinth with obstacles theme was getting a bit old. Too similar to what had gone before. Also the debates where the characters talk their way through the various puzzles went on too much.
What I would have liked as a replacement is more of passages set in the ancient society, perhaps where they set these obstacles and puzzles. There's such a beautiful description of how they build irrigation channels and nothing on why and how, for example, they decided to etch symbols over a mural which was ancient even to them.
This was needed to make the novel work as a fable which seemed to be the author's intention. It would also have been particularly nice because its Ochs' ancient characters who are the most human. The contemporary academics are about as flat as paper plates - except they're paper plates with custard pies on.
In itself, I accept this as a legitimate authorial choice and one I might enjoy. The thing is the comedy has to work, and in this case it doesn't. It's too unsophisticated for adults, too risque for kids*. The narrator doesn't show enough awareness of what he's doing with the humor to draw the readers into the joke. Before I recognized the pattern, I literally spent several pages - after I picked my jaw off the ground - wondering whether the characters had been possessed by demons/aliens/ghosts. That hypothesis seemed to fit the story better than attempted humor at that point. Instead, it's just that our academics are consistently mind-blowing in their social and professional incompetence, the Keystone Cops of archaeology (and astronomy). It blew my mind when they ... destroyed a thousand years old totally unique astronomical observatory and just dusted themselves off like it was no big deal at all. After all, they'd had time to make a few notes!
. All this could have been funny, but as I say, it didn't quite make it.
As regards reading this book to gain an appreciation of Oman, I'd say it's good for an insight into the desert environment, especially the sport of wadi exploration, and some of the ancient history, assuming you can separate fact from fiction. It doesn't attempt to say anything about contemporary Omani culture and society, even though the character of Faridah presents an opportunity.
* I do think that in many ways, this might work better as a kid's book - alter those ghastly inappropriate jokes and unfunny sexist comments into something more suitable and you've got the level of astronomy, engagement with the world, puzzle-solving and adventure that many kids love and which would even be quite educational.