The Sunbird – Wilbur Smith (1972)
Strictly speaking, I include this review for the benefit of Scott, who likes Wilbur Smith, a very well known adventure writer who focuses primarily on Africa. Of all the many books Smith has written – and I’ve read them all – I confess a particular liking for his single novels written in the earlier years of his career: “Gold”, “The Diamond Hunters”, “The Delta Decision”, “Eagle in the Sky” among others, and, of course, “The Sunbird”.
“The Sunbird” is quite unlike many of Smith’s adventure novels (do not look for deep messages or detailed complex characterizations here or anywhere else in Smith’s work) in that it is only the second book written in the first person, and has a two-part structure set in very different periods in time. One could argue this is just a smaller version of the two novel set of “River God” and “The Seventh Scroll” in the Egyptian Cycle, but not so: what sets “The Sunbird” apart is the fun the reader has in jumping back and forth between the two parts to find relationships and concordances. It’s also a ripping yarn, a great adventure story, with red-blooded characters and beautiful women and dire straits, lost cities and gun battles, love, peril, humour, fighting, and a wonderfully evocative narrative. It’s almost like H. Rider Haggard, with sex and terrorism thrown in.
Part 1 of “The Sunbird” opens with a hunchbacked archaeologist named Benjamin Kazin being shown a hazy aerial photograph of what may be a ruined city in Botswana by his friend and financial backer Lauren Sturvesant, and realizing that it is the remains of a Punic civilization which he is convinced once flourished in South Africa before vanishing without a trace. The narration then goes on to describe the excavation of the city, and the strange events that begin to occur.
Part 2 goes back in time to when Opet was a functioning city – indeed, a city state and mini-empire and the last remnant of Carthage – and opens as Lannon Hycanus the crown prince asserts his primacy to the throne, assisted by his best friend, the hunchbacked High Priest Huy ben Amon. It details their lives and hunts and friendship together, and covers a span of many years (Smith is not the best at clearly showing the passage of time, so one has to infer this from hints and notes in the narrative). Gradually, events both great and small change the nature of their relationship: Huy falls in love with a young priestess who has the gift of second sight, and the great bantu migrations from the north begin to encroach on the territory of the territory of Opet.
If this rather short account seems somewhat dry, trust me it’s not. It’s certainly somewhat dated, and Smith seems to have to put in at least one elephant hunting scene in every one of his books (there are exceptions, admittedly), and there’s always that thing about the white South Africans and the servant blacks (apartheid as a whole is neatly sidestepped by having the story take place either in the bush or in ancient times). But even the hunt for the lost city hurtles along; the part set in Opet flows very neatly and logically, and I have to say, with the possible exception of “The Hot Gates” (about the battle of Thermopylae recently made popular again by tbe movie “300) I’ve never read more stirring, bloodthirsty accounts of battle. And as both a former resident of southern Africa and a marathon runner, I dound Huy’s distance run to Opet to be a phenomenally exciting read. Not a book to be missed by any action adventure fan, packed with well researched historical details and a good eye for life in both modern and ancient times. As an introduction to Smith’s body of work, I’d say it’s one of his five best, and my only wish is that it could have been just a shade longer.
Wilbur Smith was born in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia), near Kabwe, which isn’t too far from where I spent many years of my own youth. He became a journalist and an accountant, but the success of his first novel “When the Lion Feeds” (also a very good book) in 1964 allowed him to concentrate full time on his writing, and some 30+ novels have followed. Although initially he wrote standalones, gradually he seems to have fallen in love with novels going from one generation to the next. The Courtneys and Ballantynes are his two famous families, and a series of some thirteen novels has covered the Courtney family tree, and in another five the Ballantynes. His Egyptian Cycle is what turned Scott onto his work, but thus far these four novels have not been integrated into either of the other two familial sagas.
Let’s be clear: the man is an adventure writer, but he has a great narrative gift, his imagery is excellent (Stephen King would probably sniff at his constant use of “Swifties”), and he was one of the first such “B-genre,” globally-popular novelists to really research his books for historical accuracy (though one might argue that the pulp fiction storytellers of the twenties and thirties also tried to attain factual accuracy – Louis L’Amour, for one, was famous for it). This is probably most evident in his familial epics, where historical detail is more thickly embedded into the storyline than in his standalones. In many ways he is the heir to the tradition of Rider Haggard – some would say politically as well. He has been accused of racism and sexist attitude, and perhaps it is that Smith reveals attitudes in his novels’ characters that were not out of place in apartheid South Africa which pisses people off so much. As with Haggard, black characters are often either menacing or servile; there are few who are treated simply as human beings with full interior lives to match those of his sexy, strong white heroes. For the record, Smith denies any such interpretation.
Be that as it may, I’ve always liked his work, and have been careful to not ignore such criticisms and am usually on the lookout for them (my father never believed me, but you can’t have everything), though it has to be noted that such attitudes existed back then and it would not be right to pretend otherwise. If one can suspend the irritation of such uber-mensch sagas and just take it for a “Boy’s Own” rollicking adventure story – albeit with somewhat more sex and violence than those long ago publications – then one will be taken on a wild ride, banish one’s boredom, and perhaps even pick up a thing or two. Hopefully this review will persuade a few new readers to see what there is to be seen in the work of one of the last great adventure writers still left.