The Courtney saga draws to a close (at least based on the number of published work) with author Giles Kristian taking control of the ship and returning to the high seas. Henry ‘Hal’ Courtney is back for another seafaring adventure, this time in the early days after the passing of his father. The novel opens with Angus Cochran (nicknamed the Buzzard), nemesis of Hal’s father, Francis, washing up on land, missing a hand and eye, clinging to life. Cochran is nursed back to health and then enslaved by Maharajag Jahan, the ruler of Zanzibar. Jahan wishes to see Hal Courtney killed for his antics in the Ethiopian War, which saw the Muslims defeated and Allah displeased. Kristian returns to this sub-plot throughout the novel, but also focusses on the protagonist, young Hal. While sailing with his crew and new wife, Courtney is challenged by a Dutch vessel, seemingly unaware that England and Holland have calmed their disputes. Courtney is able to overtake the ship and its entire hold, including a prisoner, an Englishman named Pett, who is haunted by a mental apparition. Pett speaks regularly with this figment of his imagination, which directs him to murder Courtney. Working alongside an enemy of Courtney’s, Pett tries to murder Hal, but is killed instead, alerting the Captain to the price on his head. When Courtney discovers that his wife, a famous Ethiopian general before her marriage, is pregnant, he is elated in hopes of having an heir to carry on the Courtney name. Working to fulfil his side of the bargain with Jahan, the Buzzard is able to capture Judith and imprison her as they sail back to Zanziabar. Courtney stops at nothing to find his wife and return her to the safety of his ship, though even doing so does not end the danger that awaits him. In a last-ditch effort to bring Courtney’s head to the Maharajah, the Buzzard hopes to attack Courtney at the site of his buried treasure, gathering more rewards than he could have previously imagined. This will be a battle to the bitter end, pitting one man’s honour against another. An interesting addition to the Courtney series that has enough action to keep Smith fans interested.
While the book is labeled as the fourteenth instalment in the Courtney collection, it might better be called “nine and a half”, fitting nicely between Birds of Prey and Monsoon. The novel examines Hal Courtney and his connection to Judith, who receives scant mention in Monsoon. While the story follows Smith’s general maritime adventure outline, complete with all the essential elements, there is a distinct flavour loss when Kristian takes up the pen and seemingly ghost writes the novel. I have read different sources on whether this was a joint venture or a new author using one with a great deal of NYT Bestseller experience to advance his cause. Either way, the idea is strong enough and does dabble into the life of Hal Courtney that was missing from Smith’s earlier third series novels, though its depth and attention to detail seems a little too light for my taste. Swashbuckling and gory battles, alongside anti-Muslim sentiment and excessive description of female anatomy make the transition from Smith’s own writing somewhat seamless, though Kristian ought not seek to quit his own job as a writer and continue on with the Courtneys, Ballantynes, or other series that Smith has made popular on his own. Decent enough, but surely not Wilbur Smith or the Courtney family at their best.
And so I have come to the end of my epic read-a-thon of the Courtney saga’s fourteen novels and the Ballantyne tetralogy, over 105 days of pure enjoyment. Throughout, I have been able to garner a wonderful idea of life in Africa, as well as the historical happenings throughout the continent. Unlike other authors, whose focus has been on a certain area or country, Smith expands his stories across much of Africa, while using the Courtneys and Ballantynes to hash out the wonders of colonial growth and tossing of said shackles to promote independence. Smith does offer a wonderfully exciting view of 19th and 20th century politics, especially as it relates to South Africa and Rhodesia (eventually Zimbabwe) as well as the grip the English, Germans, and Dutch had on the region, perhaps the most transformative of the novels in the entire series (see Courtney books 1-8, 12-13) and all four Ballantyne novels. Powerfully written and told from a variety of perspectives, so as not to label everything as Eurocentric in its narrative. Well worth my many days of invested time and I can only hope a few readers have followed my reviews and found great interest in what I have to say, as well as wanting to see what Smith says on the continent, its people, and most importantly, its development. WONDERFUL COLLECTION.
Well done, Mr. Kristian for this final novel in the series. I can hope you realise that this series is untouchable and should not be picked up by another, seeking to fill in the gaps left by Smith, even if the pre-eminent author has given you carte blanche to do so.