Call of the Raven (Ballantyne #0.5), by Wilbur Smith and Corban Addison

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Wilbur Smith, Corban Addison, and Bonnier Zaffre USA for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Taking the daring task of setting the scene with a prequel to one of his most popular series, Wilbur Smith collaborates with Corban Addison to create a stirring tale set in the 1840s. Before the Ballantyne family rose to notoriety, Mungo St. John was a young man with ambition and intelligence, studying in England. There, his family’s slave ownership soured many young men and Mungo finds himself trying to defend the possession of others. When he returned to America, Mungo discovers that slave owning is the least of his problems, when his family’s land is foreclosed upon and everything seized by a greedy man who all but killed the elder Mr. St. John. Included in the seizure is a young slave woman, named Camilla, someone Mungo holds in very high regard. As Mungo seeks to regain his family name and rush away from some of the trouble he has caused, he lies and changes his name to earn a spot on a ship sailing for Europe. Little does Mungo know the true purpose of the ship, or the horrors that await when he arrives on the other side of the Atlantic. Back in Louisiana, Camilla and many of the other slaves are moved to a cotton plantation, where they work to the bone by a ruthless slave owner, one who enjoys exerting much of his power over the women. He fancies Camilla and takes her as his own, only to leave her feeling used and abused, before she discovers that she is with child. Trying to use the pregnancy to keep herself alive, Camilla finds that she can do much more, given the opportunity and sly skills that she has acquired. When Mungo discovers that he is in the middle of a slave trading ship, he tries to hold his own, only to find himself in the middle of a rebellion on the trip back to America. Not wanting anything to do with the captain and crew who have employed him, Mungo does little to help them and saves his own life, but just. He vows that he will one day bring honour back to the St. John name and find Camilla, if only to see if they still have a chance to be happy. One more trip, under his own captaincy, to Africa sees Mungo St. John attempt a new life as a trader, this time of goods. Mungo does all he can to stay focussed, but he cannot shake that he must find and free Camilla, once and for all. The clash will be great and the risks high, but Mungo St. John is a man of his word and one who will die to ensure honour is kept. An interesting story that held my attention more than many of the other flashback tales in this series. Smith’s work continues to impress and I am glad to have taken the time to read this piece. Recommended for those who enjoy the Ballantyne series, as well as the reader whose interest in pre-Civil War America and nautical tales is high.

I fell under the spell of Wilbur Smith a number of years ago, particularly when I discovered his two series set in somewhat modern Africa. The stories were so full of adventure and discovery that I could not put them down. While he continues to build upon them, his extending the family tree sometimes went a little too far back for my liking. Smith discusses wanting to lay some groundwork for one of his minor characters in the Ballantyne series, Mungo St. John, in response to the request of many readers. Mungo was a highly controversial man who has a soft side, should one be able to find it buried under a lot of the other layers. He is an interesting man with much to prove and a great deal of passion. This emerges throughout the piece, as he is put into many situations he may not always enjoy. That being said, the reader can learn much about him in this piece, from his gritty determination through to his desire to make all things right. He may harbour a violent side, but he is also highly protective, which comes in handy on occasion as well. Others who find themselves complementing Mungo do well throughout this piece, as Smith and Addison add depth to the story with their supporting characters. Giving the reader some context about the time, these characters paint wonderful stories (though not always positive ones) about the time when slavery was waning in Europe but still going strong in America. The story itself was well paced and developed effectively for the time period. It held my attention for the most part, though did not offer up too many new nuggets of information about which I was not somewhat aware. Smith’s intention to lay some of the needed backstory and groundwork is done with ease and anyone entering this series will have many of the needed tools to find themselves fully ensconced before long. I look forward to more from Smith and his various collaborators when the chance arises.

Kudos, Messrs. Smith and Addison, for this wonderful piece of writing. I can only hope the Ballantynes continue to develop for as long as there are ideas to put to paper.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: