As the Courtney series trudges along, Smith moves the story ahead to the latter decades of the 19th century, leaving the previous three novels and their context up to the reader’s imagination. Smith sets the novel in the Sudan, which is being ruled by the Egyptian Khedive, though the narrative hints that things are mishandled under an iron fist in Cairo. Locals turn to the Mahdi, the ‘Expected One’ to toss the shackles of subservience and return the region to Arab control. Ryder Courtney, a British subject and trader in the region (not to mention the kid brother of Waite, whose sons play a key role in the first series of Courtney novels), finds himself trapped in the capital city of Khartoum, alongside the British Consul-General, David Benbrook, the Consul-General’s three daughters, and Captain Penrod Ballantyne. While plotting an escape from the region, both Courtney and Ballantyne find themselves romantically drawn to and involved with the eldest Benbrook daughter, Rebecca, though neither can completely claim her heart. After the Mahdi raises a significant military force, the Arab soldiers raid Khartoum and seize the foreign inhabitants while permitting the locals to live under a more relaxed governing structure. While Courtney is able to flee the region with one of the Benbrook twins, Saffron, the others are not as lucky. A British military insurgence is unable to push the Arabs back and they take many prisoners, but slay a number of others. Rebecca and Amber Benbrook are two chosen by the Mahdi to serve in his concubine, which is a pivotal part of the story, as Rebecca becomes ensconced in her new way of life and eventually becomes a Muslim wife to the Caliph. Ballantyne suffers greatly, though is able to escape and encounters Courtney, who returns to retrieve those with whom he forged a bond before Khartoum fell. Smith offers an interesting end to the novel, which solidifies that it is the Benbrook women, and not either a Courtney or Ballantyne, who play a central role in the overall plot. A powerful addition to the Courtney series, that can also be read independently and thoroughly enjoyed.
Smith has created a complex novel that stirs up much interest and controversy all at once. He finally makes a connection to the first series of novels by introducing Ryder Courtney, though there is but passing mention of Waite and his sons, Sean and Garrick. Penrod Ballantyne is surely a relative of those who sailed from England and settled in what became Rhodesia, but there is no firm connection to Robyn et. al., leaving the reader to speculate. The three Benbrook girls (and eventually women) play a central role, though their introduction in the early sections of the book does not hint to their eventual importance. Each of them chooses a groom and their lives change accordingly, though by the end there is no clear connection to the furthering of either the Courtney or Ballantyne series. In the case of Rebecca’s children, Smith offers a narrative that seems to encompass their entire lives in a few paragraphs, leaving the reader to wonder if the final two Courtney novels will veer off into another direction. One area that came to fruition and cannot be missed (as it has been a theme in the entire third collection of Courtney novels) is the presents of Arabs as the key antagonists. The attentive and cognizant reader will see that the time around when Smith penned these novels parallels the rise and Western vilification of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Just as in the more current newsworthy stories, Smith depicts these Arabs as ruthless and willing to inflict horrific tortures on their captives, while also forcing their arcane beliefs on women. I noticed this throughout and wonder, while historically accurate, if use of this group as villains helped sell books and propel Smith to offer up his own soap box sentiment about issues in the headlines as he sat composing these novels. It is worth further investigation in book club and reading circles. Overall, a very powerful piece that forces the reader to think while offering a new and insightful angle of colonial subjugation.
Kudos, Mr. Smith for offering such a wonderful piece of work that kept me on the edge of my seat while leaving me wanting more. Thankfully, we still have two novels to go in the series.