A Time to Die (Courtney #8), by Wilbur Smith

Seven stars

In what has been labelled the seventh Courtney novel, but which sits more accurately as eighth in the chronological progress of the series, Smith depicts a tale that offers the reader an in-depth glance into the life of Sean Courtney, son of Shasa and Tara. Set around 1987, Sean is a veteran of the Rhodesian Bush Wars and has become a full-time hunter with his safari company in Zimbabwe. Coaxed by his clients to follow a legendary elephant across the border into Mozambique, Sean leads them on a treacherous hunt that sees one client die and the other, Claudia Monterro, kidnapped by anti-government forces. With no other means to free Claudia, Sean must work with the guerrillas to save the woman with whom he has fallen in love. General China, head of the Renamo rebels has high hopes of pushing out the Marxist leaders in Mozambique and taking over, before turning his eye on crushing Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, with the help of the white South African Government. However, in order to achieve this, Sean and the group of rebels must pose as Zimbabwean troops and steal a shipment of Stinger Missiles, sent by the Soviets, which can be used to quell the attacks of Hind Helicopters being used by Mozambique’s Frelimo forces. With the weapons in the General’s possession, Sean and Claudia sit in the middle of this bloody battle to topple African leaders, with high hopes that they will be able to make their way into South Africa and be protected by all those known to Sean and his family. Smith paints a heroic side to Sean and his battle-hardened nature as he pushes himself to the limits to save those close to him. An interesting way to end the second sequence of Courtney novels, which differs vastly from the other books that glimpse at life for the entire Courtney clan.

As mentioned above, this novel moves away from the family progression in the other books of the second sequence. Smith likely sought to shed some light on the grown-up Sean, whose troublesome nature was splashed across the previous narratives. That no other family members make an appearance (save for an extremely minimal Lothar De La Rey) leaves the reader isolated in the jungles of Mozambique and Zimbabwe, without that all-around progression. However, Smith continues to educated as well as entertain in the series. In this novel, he offers an in-depth exploration of elephant hunting and, for lack of a better word, a life-cycle of the African elephant. This ties in nicely with the hunting that takes place in the first half of the novel, before things shift significantly to the political and battle-centred second half. Smith also offers a social commentary on African states, which expands from the previous novel’s discussion of the Marxist take-over of the region. While many of the countries were colonial holdings until the end of the Second World War, the geographic lines were arbitrarily drawn to fix European ideals, rather than tribal layout. By pulling out, these ‘states’ had little ability to work on their own and one of two things happened, former colonial whites came in to rule with an iron fist (Smith in Rhodesia, numerous leaders in South Africa), or Soviet-backed puppet regimes came in during the height of the Cold War, in the sixties and seventies, which instilled a form of government that was equally problematic, in that it pitted states against one another while trying to push egalitarian policies. The corruption of the continent led to much blood-shed and neighbouring states waged war, not only on ideological platforms, but to remove stability of already shaky governments with foreign supported militaries. Smith offers up that these constant pendulum swings and corrupt leaders did little to help stabilise the region, but cast it into ongoing wars, which, truth be told, only propagated the desires of the colonial whites, as blacks killed blacks and weakened states. The two diametrically opposed stalwarts, South Africa and Zimbabwe, stood as firm as could be and watched transitions, while backing opposing rebel sides in this battle for control of the southern region of the continent. Fans of Smith and this series will be able to fully comprehend the struggles in ways that the layman may not. I can say that I have learned much since commencing this series, particularly the second sequence. Readers who have taken the time to delve into the Ballantyne series will also appreciate this novel a little more, as they have the Zimbabwe backstory and the political upheavals in that country.

As the second sequence comes to an end, I can see a strong connection to the multi-generational story that was pushed before I started. As I mentioned in an earlier review, I can see similarities to Follett, Archer, and Rutherfurd as I read, tying characters together as the decades meld together. It is this type of writing that is most effective and yet hardest to accomplish. Storylines must stay fresh and yet work on the foundation of earlier characters and generations, which can easily be impeded by an author going off on tangents and forgetting about where the story originated. Smith does not have this issue and has, quite effectively, made the second sequence successful. Readers can forego reading the first sequence and be fairly well-versed, though it is always nice to know about Sean and Garrick as Centaine begins her journey and has a passionate connection to Michael, as well as some of the political goings-on that occurred in colonial South Africa. However, that remains at the discretion of the reader. And what will the third sequence bring to the narrative? Apparently some back stories related to the historical Courtneys, though not entirely sequential or constant, from what I have heard. I suppose we will have to wait and see.

Kudos, Mr. Smith for an interesting end to the second sequence. I can only hope you have more political intrigue in store for readers, as well as additionally addictive characters.