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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Mercs in the Congo: Dark of the Sun by Wilbur Smith


The 20th Century history of the (formerly Belgian) Congo is a fitting representation of what the United Nations is all about when the rubber meets the road.

A novel about mercenaries operating for Katanga, written by Afro-centric historical thriller writer Wilbur Smith just promised too many savory ingredients (prepared by a master chef) for me to resist. I haven't researched this yet, but I have a strong suspicion the Bruce Willis flick Tears of the Sun was adapted from this yarn--updated from the early 1960s to about 2003, changed from mercenaries to SEALs, and some other tweaks.

(It turns out what I have is an abridged version, so my comments may not apply to unabridged versions.) Uncharacteristically for Smith, he completely ignores the politics of the historic backdrop and focuses solely on the immediate plot: Mercenary commander Bruce Curry (a Rhodesian) is tasked to rescue a small community of Belgians who've been cut off by the cannibalistic Balubas. More importantly (to the warring powers-that-be) there's a stash of diamonds among the refugees. More importantly (to Commander Curry) there's a hot French widow among them, too.

Initially the plan is for Curry and his Mercs (diseased-but-faithful Sergeant-Major Rofi, ostracized alcoholic surgeon-turned-soldier Mike Haig, loose-cannon type "A" psycho Wally Hendry, and a couple platoons of gendarmes) to put the civilians on a train and ride with them to safety in Katanga. At first it goes along quite well. Even UN fighter aircraft fail to stop the train. But, c'mon folks, this is Wilbur Smith. Nothing can go well for long. An enemy field gun takes out the locomotive, then Curry has a few more bridges to cross (sometimes literally) while encountering various flavors of adversity along the way.

Used to Smith's doorstop-sized epics, I found this to be an unusually quick read. Perhaps because this is just a straightforward adventure tale with a small cast of characters taking place in a short period of time. I almost felt a little cheated that it ended so quickly.

The good thing about this book's brevity is that the author minimized scenes that test the squeamishness of his readers (for a non-horror author, Smith seems to enjoy the gruesome side of violence, if not the macabre, in most of his books). There was a gross moment when Curry was sobering Haig up in one scene; and a combat amputation made me grit my teeth --though he thankfully went into no gory details.

I would not call this Smith's best, or his worst. IMO it could have benefited from a bit more action or fleshing out, but even when he doesn't give 100%, he is still a heap good adventure writer.

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