The Burning Shore (Courtney #4), by Wilbur Smith

Seven stars (of ten)

Returning to the Courtney series, Smith takes readers into the next generation of the family and their exploits. While fighting the Great War in Europe, Michael Courtney, illegitimate son of Sean Courtney, crosses paths with a young Frenchwoman, Centaine de Thiry. They soon fall in love and during a passionate night, conceive a child. They plan to marry and return to the African subcontinent after the war, much to Centaine’s curiosity and delight. While running a routine air reconnaissance mission, Michael is ambushed by the Germans and dies on his wedding day. When a sense of grief overcomes both Centaine and Sean, the latter still fostering the secret that Michael is his and not his brother Garrick’s, both agree that Centaine must leave Europe immediately. Centaine and her nurse are sent on a hospital boat to South Africa, where she may live with Michael’s family. However, the boat is torpedoed and Centaine is separated from the others, drifting to shore off the coast of southwest Africa, alone and still pregnant. As she tries to find her way, Centaine is taken in by a couple from the San tribe, who help her navigate the bush and teach her of their ways, including a special piece of land, ‘The Place of All Life’. Here, Centaine eventually gives birth to a son, whom she names Michael Shasa Courtney, to honour both his father and the San couple. Centaine is eventually tracked down by German South African Lothar De La Rey, who agrees to return her to Garrick Courtney for a pardon. While they travel with young Michael, Centaine exhibits another moment of weakness and falls in love with Lothar before conceiving a child with him as well. She is happy to start a new life until she learns the San have been killed by Lothar. With a number of important choices to make, Centaine must decide how to carve out her life in Africa as a newly-adopted member of the Courtney family. Smith lays out the foundation for a wonderfully complex second series in the Courtney collection with this interesting opening novel, forcing the reader to recall all the characters who have played a role up to this point.

As I shift gears and return to the Courtney mindset, I am happy to see that Smith has not spared the reader any of the action or intrigue. As with all multi-generational novels, there is a need to bridge past stories with new ones, which Smith does effectively. In truth, parts of this novel precede A SPARROW FALLS, which left me trying to place some of these characters, to determine if I had heard of them in the aforementioned novel. The shift from the Sean and Garrick era to Centaine’s new role with enrich the story and keep the reader interested as well as curious. Smith’s depiction, both of the European theatre of war and the African backcountry, leaves little to the imagination and forces readers to pay close attention to all the nuances offered. I suspect that Smith has much more in store for the reader as the story continues to unravel and new characters will play central roles in the larger narrative as the series expands.

Kudos, Mr. Smith for a great novel, launching a powerful new portion of the series, and keeping Africa as your central setting. I cannot wait to see what else you have in mind for your readers.