Wilbur Smith





RIVER GOD, St Martin’s Press, 1993
WARLOCK, St. Martin’s Press, 2001
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Historical Fiction, Ancient Egypt

In RIVER GOD, the first of this exhilarating pair of novels, Taita is a gifted eunuch slave who guides his mistress Lostris and their family-of-the-heart to power in a divided Egypt. At first Taita wants only to survive and prosper, but he finds himself thrust into a position of influence by his love for Lostris and Tanus, the two children he tutored.

Ostrich-like, the government is trying to ignore a situation it is powerless to remedy. Northern Egypt is ruled by usurpers, and its own Southern Egypt is being dragged into poverty by unchecked bandits and an extravagant Pharaoh. Tanus tries to ease this situation, so he finds himself outlawed at the very time when Lostris accidentally captivates Pharaoh. Lostris is flung unwillingly into the royal harem by her father, Grand Vizier Intef. Taita, accompanying her, knows all too much about the illicit business affairs of Intef. He must guard his own life, now that Intef can no longer be sure of him.

In spite of all these hazards, Taita, Lostris and Tanus are reunited just before Northern Egypt explodes in a situation that cannot be ignored. The Hyksos from the east overrun the Delta. Not even Tanus’s talent and charisma as a general can stand against the hordes of the Shepherd Kings with their terrifying horse and chariot teams, never before seen in Egypt. However, Taita learns much from his first battle against the Hyksos, and he takes the seeds of innovation with him when the royal court flees into Ethiopia. As the Royal Heir, Lostris’ son, grows to manhood, the ruling line of Egypt prepares for a triumphant return.

According to the timeline used in RIVER GOD, the occupation of the Hyksos lasted about a hundred years. In WARLOCK, though we have skipped a generation to Lostris’ grandson Nefer Seti, their influence still pervades all Egypt. In the silence of the desert Taita has become an adept and intermediary to the gods. He must use all his cunning and spiritual skills, to keep Nefer alive to reclaim the position usurped by Naja, the false friend of Nefer’s father. Nefer’s loving, beautiful Hyksos betrothed, Mintaka, has also lost her family to a usurper in Northern Egypt. If they can recapture their thrones, their marriage will reunite Egypt. Taita’s magic is still needed while Nefer matures into a clever and magnetic leader.

Very little is actually known about the Hyksos occupation of Egypt. Between the chaos and destruction inflicted on civilized and complacent Egypt by the conquering hordes, and the Egyptian penchant for erasing all mention of their embarrassing enemies, the "historical" record consists mostly of speculation. Historians even dispute during which years the Hyksos ruled Egypt. This leaves all kinds of leeway for novelists, and grand old storyteller Wilbur Smith takes full advantage of it, incorporating into his plot the bones of known history, such as the Hyksos introduction of the horse and chariot into Egypt.

These novels are a potent mating of fact and fancy. For example: Taita is mesmerized by a broken Hyksos chariot on the field of battle. He experiments for years, and the result is the improved, lighter and faster version of the chariot that we see in Egyptian murals. Those are the basics. Smith’s story includes all the human terror and hatred that the Egyptians must have felt as they saw these unknown monsters mowing down the armies of the defenders. Taita has much resistance to overcome, to persuade the general and his army of the beauty and power the horse and chariot can bring into their lives. Horses give a new love to Taita’s life and add to the emotional power of the story.

RIVER GOD and WARLOCK are gripping adventure stories. At times I found the suspense unbearable, so great was my need to find out what was going to happen to my beloved characters. Each book has a terrifying and riveting struggle with a wild animal that determines the course of these books’ history. RIVER GOD has one of the most exalting battle scenes I have ever read. Unforgettable challenges are met and overcome in both books, such as the hippopotamus hunt, Taita’s final confrontation with Intef, an aerial fight with a cobra, and the warriors’ test called the Running of the Red Road.

RIVER GOD is written solely from Taita’s first person viewpoint. It is suffused with Taita’s entertaining personal idiosyncrasies and his love for Lostris and her family. The intention of WARLOCK is different. The author wants to present Taita as a mysterious figure who awes his associates, so we see events through the eyes of several key figures instead. We get to know Nefer and his resolute betrothed Mintaka, Nefer’s sister Heseret and her usurper husband Naja, Mintaka’s father Apepi, and her rejected suitor Trok, all colorful figures suitable for myth.

These breathless and involving stories are not without humor. In Taita’s youth his outstanding talents are accompanied by a naďve egotism that tickles the reader’s funnybone. His dreams about the conception of Pharaoh’s children bring a smile to a tense situation. And every time Taita finds a clever solution to a new problem, there is a delighted sense of discovery.

I would like to offer a suggestion to anyone who intends to write fiction set in ancient Egypt. I would be deeply grateful if every single author writing of the period did not feel a compulsion to recount details of the embalming process. It is no longer new, it was never lovely. Only once have I seen it used to advance the plot – in one of the hard-to-find mysteries of Anton Gill. Surely there are better uses for the ink.

There is one thing in books and movies that never fails to irritate me. It is when a character needs to be convincing, but the plot requires that he fail to convince. What is irritating about these situations is when the author solves his contradiction by under-writing, being unconvincing on purpose. In WARLOCK, Princess Mintaka has a plan in which the potential dangers are far greater than the expected rewards, yet no one manages to point this out to her. When I can come up with an argument more convincing than Taita, who has been manipulating people for three generations, something is wrong. Of course, it is all for the good of the plot, and the plot works out just the way the story requires. What is needed is a better back story, something to account for Mintaka refusing to accept a good explanation, instead of everyone ignoring the most fatal possibilities of the plan.

These are my personal peeves. They don’t stop me from considering this vivid and exciting pair of books to be some of the best fiction about the period that I have read. My return to RIVER GOD after eight years was even more rewarding than the first reading. I do think it is a good idea to read WARLOCK after RIVER GOD, because I found myself better able to connect with WARLOCK after I had reread RIVER GOD. I should warn you that kindness to animals and inferiors was not a characteristic of the time, and the books reflect that.

Wilbur Smith is a fox of a storyteller in several time periods, a long-time resident of the best seller lists, and is read world-wide. His travels are reflected in his settings, and so is his research. THE SEVENTH SCROLL, published in 1995, is a contemporary thriller touched by the character of Taita. It is now on my list to read soon.

July 2001 Review Originally Published on the Independent Reviews Site


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