The Settler (The Lion and the Leopard, #1), by Brian Duncan

Seven stars

In the first book of the trilogy, Brian Duncan takes the reader into an interesting and contentious period on the African continent, showing an impressive ability to use history as a backdrop to support a powerful story. As the novel opens, the year is 1890 and a young Martin Russell has just completed his studies at Oxford. Determined to make the trek to South Africa where he hopes of discovering some of the new mining possibilities, Martin refuses to heed the requests put forth by his family. In preparation for his journey, Martin encounters Perry Davenport, an American who is headed into the Transvaal to detect what mining options there might be, backed by a rich family in Boston. When they head to the Cape, Martin meets a young Helen Bateson, engaged to Lord Robert Onslow,who agrees to fund Martin’s trip into the unchartered African territory. Martin and Helen share a brief spark of romance, though the engagement is a impediment for any suitable progress. While travelling in the bush and up to Rhodesia, Robert and Perry soon abandon the trek, leaving Martin to wrestle with all the territory has to offer, though he is not alone as many British have begun flocking to the region to take advantage of many diamond discoveries. Martin succeeds in securing land in the as yet developed Rhodesia and begins a farming venture, which he offsets by mining for gold on the periphery of his territory. However, by 1893 the Matabele tribes begin rebelling against these intruders. The imperial British and Boers alike fight to stem the tide of these tribal rebellions, though remember their animosity towards one another fondly. When Perry makes a surprise return from time in America, he and Martin fight together and eventually come across a Boer family, the Venters, who take them in during their journey homeward. The two teenage daughters, Louise and Pookie, draw much interest from both Martin and Perry, though their age makes any romantic possibilities less than ideal. While sixteen year-old Louise does seem to express interest, Martin cannot convince himself to reciprocate her desires and Perry ends up stealing her away, no conscience blocking his lustful ideas. Licking his heartbroken wounds, Martin returns to farming while Perry becomes ensconced with the Boer lifestyle. When Helen and Robert return from England to pursue a farming lifestyle in South Africa, Martin’s spark returns, though Helen remains forbidden fruit, though they build a strong friendship built on admiration. Trouble is brewing as the British continue to travel to settle in South Africa but are refused representation in the local government, which leads to a second British-Boer clash, famously referred to the Boer War. Martin agrees to serve under his native Britain, though Perry is happy to serve on the side of his relations and signs up to defend the Boer territories. Martin and Perry have different experiences on either side of the battle, but will cross paths at least once more. Will their friendship supersede battle lines and how will the others fare in this bloody battle that ushered in the 20th century? Duncan does a wonderful job laying the groundwork for this first novel and lures readers in as the African subcontinent’s mysteries are slowly revealed.

I received word of Duncan and his trilogy while working my way through another collection of South Africa-Zimbabwe novels by a popular author. I agreed to take a gander and was pulled into Duncan’s narrative early on, as he develops many wonderful characters, all of whom work on conjunction to weave a strong plot. However, as with any good storyteller, Duncan had to choose the path he wished the story to follow and focussed on Martin Russell’s adventures, as he settled in the new land of Rhodesia. Using a narrative that does progress over periods of time, Duncan is able to skip over some of the mundane daily living that his characters might undertake and highlight key events. The struggles that Martin faces become more complex in time and with more characters flavouring the narrative, though the foundation remains the same, that he seeks a new and independent life in Africa. Peppered with wonderful subplots and historical figures making their own cameos, Duncan is able to push the story to its ultimate climax, the Boer War. The story branches off and a number of the characters in a useful way while offering the reader a detailed look into his military campaign, providing fodder for both sides and their points of view. While the end does leave the reader wondering, the epilogue seeks to tie things up in three to four paragraphs. Alas, the trilogy is more about the region than the characters introduced in this opening novel.

Kudos, Mr. Duncan for a masterful opening novel. I cannot wait to see what other aspects of African history you seek to address in the next two novels.