The Tiger’s Prey (Courtney Saga #16), by Wilbur Smith and Tom Harper

Three stars

Wilbur Smith brings Tom Harper along with him to create the latest in the Courtney saga, returning to the high seas of the 18th century. Tom Courtney is the son of the master seafarer, Sir Hal Courtney. The entire Courtney clan are well known for having control of the seas and have planted many deep roots, especially along the African continent. Tom is rumoured to have turned on members of his family to save his own honour and is rumoured dead. This is the narrative that young Francis Courtney holds close to his heart. When the last remnants of his family are killed, young Francis goes in search of Tom, hoping to discover if he truly has been killed. If not, he will undertake to complete the task and ensure his own father did not die in vain. Francis discovers Tom is alive and well, though has been keeping a low profile in South Africa. Francis lets his bluster get the better of him and Tom is prepared to turn the tables on this young Courtney. Instead, they agree to work together and set sail for the East Indies, sure to find adventure during the journey. What follows is a collection of storms on the high seas and interactions with other swashbucklers as Tom and his crew seek assistance when they arrive on shore. With Francis at his side, Tom engages the locals in more adventure than any man could handle… any man but a Courtney. Limping through to the end, the reader will be lucky to keep their bearings in this addition to what might be the weakest of the three sagas, that of the seas. Many pardons to readers of the review, as I will be the first to admit, my summary of the story is poor, hampered by not being able to connect with the piece, as discussed below.

I have long had an issue when an author passes away or ‘retires’ and another takes over the reins of a series. Many a collection of books have gone down the drain when the original creator no longer has control of their master work. Wilbur Smith’s turning the Courtney series over to others has been a recipe for disaster and yet books continue to be published. Having devoured all of Smith’s past Courtney saga novels (attributed solely to him) and loving them, this was yet another let down for me. One must be careful where to point fingers. It might be Harper trying to slide into the massive literary footprint or the fact that I am not a fan of the ‘Courtneys on the seas’ branch, but this book grabbed me as effectively as marble tossed on a Velcro wall. There was obviously some character development and action peppered throughout, but I just could not find myself grasping onto what was going on. It may also have been that the story was not adequately divided into chapters, choosing instead to be a single blob of writing that continued to flow from page to page (or for us audio listeners, minute to minute). I felt myself lost and without any form of help as I tried to push through this book. The sole redeeming beacon ended up being that the book ended and I could move on to something else. Alas, I feel that my reading the saga may finally have come to an end. I have little interest in continuing if Wilbur Smith feels that he must allow others to trifle with his work. Surely, he has lost that burning desire to create high-caliber work and only seeks the royalties for something that has his name plastered to the cover.

Oh, Messrs. Smith and Harper, how you have disappointed Courtney series fans with this. I hope many readers will not use this book as a benchmark for the entire series, which has had moments of brilliance.

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War Cry (Courtneys # 14), by Wilbur Smith (with David Churchill)

Eight stars

Building on his multi-generational Courtney family saga, Wilbur Smith crafts a new story that shifts focus on the Kenyan-based group, led by Leon. After the tragic death of his wife, Leon is left to raise his precocious daughter alone. Saffron Courtney’s determination and refusal to let anything stand in her way shows how much of the family blood flows through her veins. Sent to study at a reputable boarding school in South Africa, Saffron learns the ropes as Leon tries to resurrect Courtney Trading, which had been paralyzed by the global downturn of the Depression. Working with his three brothers, Leon pitches an idea to turn things around, leaving at least one with a sour taste in his mouth. In an alternate storyline, the reader learns of Gerhard von Meerbach, who grows up in his brother’s shadow and has yet to fully accept the new Nazi regime that has taken Germany by storm. The reader is reminded of the von Meerbach family’s ties to the Courtneys, which was fleshed out fully when last Smith wrote about this wing of the family. As both Saffron and Gerhard grow older, they cross paths and soon find a connection that would stir up many emotions in their respective families, though about which both young characters are temporarily unaware. As the winds of war begin to blow across Europe, the Courtneys and von Meerbachs choose their sides, though both families have porous aspects of their familial foundations and support leads both clans to find the traitorous blood. Saffron shows that she is determined to craft an Allied victory through any means necessary, putting country before her own safety. Gerhard is also willing to show a softer side, though it might cost him his freedom and eventually his life. Using the African continent as a backdrop and some of the regional battles as a historical narrative, Smith is able to forge a story rich in delivery and yet devastating in its discussion of the War. Smith’s continuation of the Courtney saga is fortified by a wonderful narrative and well-developed characters, pulling on the lush fruits of this complex family tree. Well suited for readers who are familiar with the entire Courtney series, but equally as entertaining for anyone who picks the book up to begin the magical journey.

I was happy to have secured a copy of this latest book in the series and even more impressed that its focus was in the 20th century. I have found that Smith’s additions to the series are weaker the further back in history the story delves, while the closer to the central South African storyline proves most effective. Smith has been able to effectively weave the story of this large family by branching off and building on loose threads left in the narrative, without losing the impetus for the larger story. As with many of his tales, Smith has a wonderful handle on the narrative and use some strong characters to tell the story of love, history, and determination. As Smith tends to be constantly crafting his Courtney series, it would be helpful to focus on one direction (time era), permitting the reader to better understand what to expect. While this might be an editorial decision, bouncing from 17th century adventures on the high seas to this powerful Second World War tale proves to be a ‘stop-start’ in the reader’s ability to understand the flow of the story. I find it harder to develop a bond with characters if I have to wait eight years to see them again (as in this story and the last time we met Leon, etc). Perhaps I pine too much for the ‘series one and two’ Courtney stories, where there was a significant build-on of the characters, always moving forward. By the time ‘series three’ arose, we were bouncing back in time and trying to hash out some of the ancestral aspects of the family, thereby losing the momentum that Smith had so effectively developed. Smith leaves some great storylines unfinished and there is hope that future novels might address this. I can only hope that Smith will continue to control the stories, though I have come to see that he has contributors and authors who have taken over writing for him, which lessens the impact of the larger Courtney saga. One can hope that more generations emerge, enriching the experience both for the reader and Smith personally.

Kudos, Mr. Smith for a great addition to the series. I can only hope that you have a few more ideas in mind, especially in the latter generations of Courtney family members.