When the Lion Feeds (Courtney #1), by Wilbur Smith

Four stars

As I begin my semi-annual trek to binge read a sizeable series by an author previously foreign to me, Wilbur Smith seemed like an easy choice. His Courtney/Ballantyne series (some argue they are branch-offs of one another, others that they do not connect at all) should be a wonderfully complex and entertaining collection, worth a few months’ investment. Twins Sean and Garrick Courtney were connected by birth, but could not have been more different. Growing up in South Africa in the mid- to late-19th century, their lives were shaped by a world that straddles primitive Africa and technologies from colonial Europe. After a freak accident at the hand of his brother when they were young, Garrick is left without a leg and Sean’s guilt mounts. Garrick is able to use this to his advantage, which progresses into young adulthood. When the Courtney brothers accompany their father into a battle with one of the African tribes, Garrick and Sean fight for their country, the former the only one to return. Garrick takes his brother’s pregnant girlfriend, Anna, under his wing, choosing to marry her and play father to the future child. When Sean reappears, Garrick must make some significant choices, realising that his brother’s massive persona will not fade into the background. Garrick disappears into the bottle and is left out of the narrative, permitting Sean to tackle new and exciting challenges on which Smith takes the reader. Sean explores the South African gold rush, able to make a fortune before he is tricked and loses everything. Refusing to give up, Sean takes up a new path as an ivory hunter, where he is able to rebuild and meet the woman of his dreams. It is then that he begins to set roots in the booming environs of Johannesburg, adding a son to his family and beginning to look ahead to the next generation of Courtneys. An exhilarating beginning to a powerful series whose importance flows from the pages and the attentive reader will surely enjoy.

I had heard much about Smith in my years as a reader, but chose not to approach his books, unsure if they would be of interest to me. Being a great fan of all things historical, I thought I would take the plunge. What is great about this series is that it is set in Africa, an area with which I have little knowledge. The settings are thick with detail in such a way that only Smith could pen effectively, as an African himself. He does not yet tackle much of the racial strive that is sure to transpire in the area, but hints at the Boer War on the horizon. The novel moves along in three significant parts, each of which shows Sean Courtney in his various life paths. Smith effectively weaves a tale to show how Sean dealt with adversity, while peppering the narrative with the life of Garrick, whose demise has not hampered his style. The curious reader may wonder what happens to Garrick, who will hopefully appear in future novels to flesh out his role and the reason Smith used him in the early chapters of the book. While the narrator of the audiobook I chose tried to bore me to tears, I sought to wrestle the story out of his monotonous voice and find vigour in the way Smith approached telling this important inaugural story in the Courtney series. I found success in it and can only hope the numerous storylines flourish with the remaining novels in this series, throughout the three collections on offer.  

Kudos, Mr. Smith for this wonderful beginning to an exciting series I will surely devour over the next few months. Show me the wonders of Africa and how it was shaped by internal and external strife.

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