Reviewed by Ian Lipke
The Call of the Raven tells the story of a wicked neighbour cheating a man, named Mungo St John, out of his property, and in so doing, taking away his birthright, thereby rendering him moneyless. Now without the money he was expecting, and finding in addition that his childhood sweetheart has been taken from him and allocated slave status, Mungo has to battle to survive. The hero is familiar to readers of A Falcon Flies, a book Wilbur Smith wrote many years ago. Incandescently angry, Mungo decides to make money by harvesting and transporting slaves from Africa. By this stage the writing was so insipid, I had lost interest in him.
The name Wilbur Smith in past decades created an enthusiastic buzz among readers. Today there is little enthusiasm at all. The employment of not so hidden ghost writers is a very generous gesture for a publicly-recognised author to make, and I applaud him for his action in helping writers become known. However, readers remember the masculinity of Where the Lion Feeds and books written early in Smith’s career. The belief always was that there could not be another Wilbur Smith. The current ‘experiment’ is clouding the way in which we remember a fine author.
I don’t want to give away too much of the storyline. I don’t want details mentioned because the story can be enjoyed if the reader is simply prepared to read the froth and ignore the current. We do indeed have a handsome hero and several spectacular women. Sex and killing and racing for one’s life are all present in copious numbers. There are evil men by the score and devious plots beyond imagination that succeed or fail with split second timing. However, I am still puzzling over the selection of the title. Mungo’s second boat is called The Raven. It is a sleek vessel with a very shallow draft that seems unlikely to be big enough to carry slaves (yet it does). Call of the Raven – I don’t get it.
One has to ask oneself what is the purpose of all this super-charged action. Reflection reveals that Mungo has to win back his wealth through the only means he can devise viz blackbirding, while crushing his opponents. Of course, he has no trouble winning at a card game enough money to fund the purchase of a ship that will be his ticket to the wild, uncivilised countries just waiting to hand over their youths and their women. Heroes do not scorn the idea that they should be settling down at a job and earning a living, they just never think along those lines.
The love interest is Camilla, a young black slave girl who has captured Mungo’s heart. When his father’s property is sold, Camilla is part of the spoils. Mungo is taken off to be hanged. This is one of those feeble parts of the tale that sees owners of neighbouring properties, who have watched Mungo grow from boyhood, stand back and let the young man be hanged because they had all sold their souls and properties to the new owner. That Mungo escapes is immaterial. This is illogical behaviour. There is plenty more to come.
Just how many men were killed in this story is impossible to ascertain but the number would be very high. I could not help but think of a children’s game called Cowboys and Indians where the Indians, having been shot, count to five, and then get up to begin shooting again. Instant reincarnation!
I’m sorry that I could not enjoy this book. It was beautifully presented with a lavish, but appropriate cover, in just the right tones. It is the sort of cover that attracts the buyer immediately.
Unfortunately, the story was a weak example of Wilbur Smith in his heyday. We’ve grown old with Wilbur Smith; it’s time to put down the pen.
By Wilbur Smith with Corban Addison
Allen & Unwin