King of Kings (Courtneys and Ballantyne #2), by Wilbur Smith and Imogen Robertson

Seven stars

In their collaborative effort, Wilbur Smith and Imogen Robertson offer readers the latest instalment of the Courtney and Ballantyne saga, taking the story back to the African continent in the latter portion of the 19th century. Situated in and around Cairo, Penrod Ballantyne has tossed away the love of his life for the wily actions of a two-bit whore, or so the story goes. He has been up to his old tricks and remains one step ahead of the law, smearing the names of anyone who crosses him, particularly when he is in the opium dens scattered throughout Egypt. Meanwhile, Ryder Courtney is hard at work trying to mine as much of the metal as he can find, having secured permits to dig around Ethiopia. However, there would seem to be someone trying to stop his progress, as the ship carrying his supplies inexplicably explodes. Convinced that there is much to be done, Courtney and his family remain committed and work with the locals to find new ways to bring about a successful venture, all while Ethiopia enters a new era of politics and tribal control. The Italians have laid claim to the land and are making the country their protectorate, while the local tribesmen are coming to terms with a new leader, the King of Kings, who has promised not to abandon the fight for autonomy. Caught on both sides of the fight, the Courtney and Ballantyne families seek to make their mark on the African continent, particularly its northern territories, while living a life their European ancestors could not have imagined. Smith and Robertson do well in this piece, even if I was not entirely captivated by the writing or plot. I’ll leave it to other fans of this extensive series to decide if they want to add this one, as I have a somewhat lukewarm reaction to it.

I remember how enthralled I was with the early novels in both the Courtney and Ballantyne series, even as they blended together at one point. Of course, that was when Wilbur Smith had full control of the writing and the plot development. Granted, he has aged much and likely cannot keep up with all the advances in the writing process, but I have seen a significant lessening in the impact of the novels since secondary writers have shared (read: controlled) the writing process. It could be that things are not as sharp or that people are just not as attuned to Smith’s nuanced style, but I will admit this was one reason that I was not fully committed to the novel. Ryder Courtney and Penrod Ballantyne each have their own backstories and have enriched the pages of this piece with their adventures. Contrasting significantly, one is a strong and powerful force while the other seems more interested in flitting from one cause to the next, without setting down roots. The reader will likely find themselves connected to one or the other, which creates an interesting banter throughout the novel and will do well as the series continues to advance. Others grace the pages of this book to offer the two protagonists some direction and personalises them, though I could not grasp onto the secondary characters enough to feel it saved the novel from being tepid. The plot was decent and Smith always uses known history as a backdrop, but I needed more to keep me fully committed. Gone are the days of the original series, where strong characters dominated the pages, though they do pop up from time to time. In a set of series that tend to take checker-like jumps in time, it is had to get the full chronological view of either family. Perhaps once Wilbur Smith and his collaborators lay down their pens for the final time, I will have to return and read the entire series in order to get the full impact of the stories being spun!

Kudos, Mr. Smith and Madam Robertson, for a valiant attempt. I may be in the minority, though I do not discount the abilities that either of you have!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons