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The books of Wilbur Smith

August 11, 2015

Ever since I was a teenager, Wilbur Smith has ranked amongst my favourite writers. his adventure books have thrilled me, dipping me in brilliant, exciting and addictive stories. I call Wilbur Smith, Willard Price for grown-ups. Now, his books have been reviewed to death, so I’m not going to write scholarly, thoughtful reflections on each novel, instead, I’m going to list his books in order of publication and write a very brief review of each, along with a score. Sadly, Smith’s recent offerings have been very average. His Hector Cross novels having echoes of psycho-sexual fantasy, sexual violence, and language bordering on racism. His latest book, “Desert god” was terrible. The hero having changed his personality and revealing his demy-god status. If only Smith had turned off his laptop after “Warlock.” It’s sad, “River god” was fabulous, “Warlock” was very good, “The quest” was… let’s forget that ever happened! And “Desert god” well, some interesting editorial choices, a tired and predictable plot and a protagonist who has run out of steam.

This said, Wilbur Smith has written some crackers. Wholesome, boys’ own adventure that you can’t put down. So let’s not think too much about the three or four books that should have been used for loo roll, let’s instead think about the books that have stirred us, grabbed us, and inspired us.

When the lion feeds (1964)
A brilliant, brutal, brave and brash taste of the Anglo-Zulu war. The first Courtney novel to be published.

The dark of the sun (1965)
The Congo crisis through the eyes of mercenaries. Somewhat untidy, especially when it comes to unarmed combat, but nevertheless a good read.

The sound of thunder (1966)
The second Courtney novel to be published. A fine, stirring adventure that explores the second Boer war. Some fine writing and immersive locations and characters that will stay with you for a very long time.

Shout at the devil (1968)
Set during World War I, this book has an ambiguous, rushed, and almost comical tone. Hard to understand why this was made into a film. Not terrible, but not particularly memorable either.

Gold mine (1970)
Made into a film starring Roger Moore (I think!) this is a tight, short, rip-roaring yarn. A wide audience is shown the hardship and rigour of South African mining. This, stand alone book ages fairly well.

The diamond hunters (1971)
Another stand alone offering. A good story, gripping and exciting. It isn’t on my desert island reading list, but it isn’t bad.

The Sunbird (1972)
One of my favourite books ever! Inspired me to become a writer. Has about it some splendid magic, atmosphere and grandier. Set both in the present and the past, it ticks all the boxes. Battles, emotion, love, archaeology, adventure. All a reader could wish for! I re-read it recently. Despite having lost some of its impact, it is still fabulous.

Eagle in the sky (1975)
A stand alone book about a pilot who is disfigured after a crash. Not quite sure what it tells us about Smith’s view of disability… rather feels like writing by numbers. This said, it isn’t at all bad.

The eye of the tiger (1975)
A good old fashioned adventure story about treasure, a jewel and the sea. Has all the ingredients to make a yummy cake.

Cry wolf (1976)
A stand alone book about the intriguing topic of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Another example of an ambiguous tone. An interesting main character and some insights into cultural issues.

A sparrow falls “(1977)
A Courtney novel. An interesting book about change and revolution. A dark, somewhat slow burner but with some excellent drama and set-pieces.

Hungry as the sea (1978)
Another good adventure. This time we are treated to marine salvage. Not Mr Smith’s finest hour, but nevertheless worth a read.

Wild justice (1979)
An interesting and gripping book with terrorism as its central theme. Some well defined characters, gripping scenes and nice conclusion.

A falcon flies (1980)
The first Ballantyme novel. Set in the backdrop of the white settlement of Rhodesia, it is a fast-paced and sound piece of work. Full of action, drama and spectacle.

Men of men (1981)
Serious, dramatic, frenzied. The second Ballantyme novel exposes the reader to the horror of the Matabele war. A very good book.

Men of men (1982)
This Ballantyme novel straddles the second Matabele war and the Rhodesian bush war. You can almost taste the tension and passion, Smith clearly wants us to understand, to live this struggle. A passionate and immersive piece of fiction.

The leopard hunts in darkness (1984)
The Ballantyme’s find themselves in the newly formed Zimbabwe. guerrilla warfare, adventure and some treasure hunting. Some very memorable scenes, including cave diving. A one-legged hero, a struggle and a cause. What’s not to like?

The burning shore (1985)
A book of two halves. Some very effective World War I-based action, alongside some rather dull exploration. Some of this book is brilliant, some of it is a tad dry. However, it marks a useful brick in the Courtney wall.

Power of the sword(1986)
A Courtney novel set during World War II. Some lovely historical detail, including the Olympics. Fascinating characters and political intrigue. A lot is learned about African history when reading this.

A Courtney novel set in the melting pot of 60s South Africa. The Sharkville riots are drawn stark and hard, as is the political and racial unrest of an unhappy land. Not always easy reading, but an essential part of the canon.

A time to die (1989)
A Courtney novel that’s set amongst the terror of the Mozambican war, we are treated to heroism, battle, action and emotion.

Golden fox (1990)
The final Courtney novel of a generation. The South African border war, international politics, the Cuban intervention in Angola. An interesting book with plenty to commend it. Emotionally charged, hard-hitting and good.

Elephant song (1991)
Probably his finest stand alone novel (apart from The Sunbird.) A great and charged opening scene, a definite anti-poaching stance, and some thrills along the way. Read it and weep…

River god (1993)
The first and by far the finest book in the Egyptian series. A brilliant and intriguing protagonist, a slave and eunuch called Taita. Thrilling adventure, somewhat dodgy history; but who cares, it’s brilliant and un-put-downable. Gripping, thoroughly entertaining and great.

The 7th scroll (1995)
Kind of a sequel to River God. Set in modern times we have adventure and archaeology. Elements that I’m a sucker for. Despite some nice stuff, I don’t really see the point of this book.

Birds of prey (1997)
Back to the Courtney’s of the 1660s. Some adventure on the high seas, battles, intrigue. However, I find that this book has an utterly depressing tone. Torture and heartbreak abound. Read only if you’re feeling good!

Monsoon (1999)
The Courtney’s of the 1690s. Some nice stuff here… I never thought a camel would make me cry! More upbeat in tone than “Birds of prey.” A rip-snorting yarn that you’ll find glued to your hands.

Warlock (2001)
A very good book. Taita is still fresh enough to be interesting and there is some good magic on show here. Not as strong as “River god” but very worthwhile.

Blue horizon (2003)
The Courtney’s of the 1730s flee the Dutch across Africa in this gripping adventure. Turn off your brain, engage your imagination and be swept away. Not the most intelligent book – in fact, we’ve been here before, but still fun.

The triumph of the sun (2005)
The Courtney’s and the Ballantymes unite in the 1860s. Interesting historical context – the siege of Khartoum. Not amazing, but pretty good, Good historical detail regarding the evolution of warfare.

The quest (2007)
Another ancient Egypt book. This should be ignored at all costs. It’s a mess. Very disappointing. Let’s just forget about it shall we?

Assegai (2009)
The Courtney’s of the Edwardian era. Big game hunting, romance and not much more.

Those in peril (2011)
This is when Smith gets a bit unravelled. Hector Peril’s first outing isn’t terrible, it’s just that there’s rape and sexual violence, the language and style is a little difficult to stomach. Like an old man who thinks he can say anything to a youngster on a bus, there’s something disturbing about this,

Vicious circle (2013)
Better than its brother. Hector Cross’s second book has something to commend it. Quite tight, fast-paced and interesting.

Desert god (2014)
Oh dear. Not as bad as “The quest” but an Egyptian book too far. Taita has changed his character, the plot is predictable and tired. Would have made a good stand alone with a new hero. The Babylonian and Cretian stuff can stand on their own two feet.

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