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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Assagai by Wilbur Smith

Whether he's on his game or not, Wilbur Smith is a novelist who tells a good adventure story nine times out of ten.

This one begins a few years prior to the outbreak of WWI and features early aviation, espionage, romance, and big game hunting in Africa.

Leon Courtney is a junior officer in the British Army in East Africa, with a lousy commanding officer. He makes a career change early on and finds himself on an epic hunting safari for Teddy Roosevelt and his son, Kermit. Ultimately he finds himself in a dangerous love triangle and some colonial chess-playing between the British and German empires prior to the opening guns of the First World War.

Smith's research is usually solid, but in this work he has some anachronisms--like German purpose-built bombers years before the war even began. (Even well after the war started, and bogged down into trench combat, planes were not used for fighting, but observation. The armies involved considered the military potential of "aeroplanes" dubious at best. Purpose-built combat aircraft didn't start rolling off the assembly lines for a while.)

Where Smith really shines is in his descriptions of Africa. In particular I appreciated his breakdown of the complex ecosystem which provides early warning (and hygiene) for elephants. And though I'm an unashamed carnivore, have enjoyed hunting in my day (and would again if it were feasible with my schedule, etc.), Smith's depictions of hunted animals are so poignant that I often can't help a pang of sadness when the humans prevail. This is true in a lot of his novels.

I couldn't help wondering if this novel is setting up what happens in The Power of the Sword which I read a year or two ago. Anyway, it's a pretty good read.

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