Reviewed by Ian Lipke
This latest volume in the Ancient Egypt Series sees the host nation on its knees. For more than fifty years, Egypt has been beset by a ruthless enemy, she is a civilisation in ruins. The Hyksos, a bloodthirsty barbarian people from the distant east continue to advance, crushing armies in their wake. Times are desperate. Egypt’s only hope seems to lie in the hands of a resistance led by the great former slave Taita, who maintains the fight from earlier days.
Piay, one of Taita’s proteges has become a great spy. He and his constant companion Hannu undertake the hazardous task of contacting Mycenae to seek help. This involves travelling through the heart of Hyksos land and across the great sea. As the situation becomes increasingly precarious, and the fate of the kingdom is hanging in the balance, Piay continues to use his wits to ensure success in his quest. In succeeding, and saving Egypt, Piay relies on a slave girl with special talents.
From the synopsis one can see that, once again, we have received the sort of story at which Smith excels. It is a story of action. Its structure is such that we read about one action after another with no attempt being made to identify how an action now has any effect on any subsequent event. Each event is self-contained. There are, in fact, few events that stand alone. Most are part of the war between essentially two sides – men are pro-Hyksos or anti-Hyksos.
Many readers are happy to receive this type of story. They enjoy a tale of action in which the hero wins every time. To these readers, and they are many, a tale of unthought through action is all that a great tale will tell. These readers spend their money on books that require little thought, and they are perfectly entitled to do so.
An area often exploited by novelists is the telling of great emotion in a love or sex scene. Smith does not communicate these with any expertise. In the present book the reader had trouble in deciding whether Piay was going to make a match with Myssa or whether she would throw her affections at the feet of Hannu. For a time it looked as if a spark may have been lit in the heart of Serrena, but this match was soon declared void.
Smith has one great strength. This is in his display of his villains. Sakir is one of the guys we love to hate. He is irrepressible. He appears just as the story needs him, to generate interest when the telling begins to flag, and at a time when readers need to realise that a spot of evil is almost overdue. He lives a tormented life and his end is married to the frightful pangs of the fire.
The supporting cast has its own contribution to make. The evil pirate captain is rightly cast, the warriors to be singled out are hulking brutes, and Jabilo, who offered his services to the Egyptians was slim and strong, precisely the qualities held by the hero. The Mycenaean execution of a slave, who was too intelligent and forward-thinking, was extremely unlikely as was the killing of Degba, and the creative rationality of Bast the cat was beyond belief.
It is always possible to disagree with Smith’s interpretation of his subjects but, if one recalls that his only purpose is to tell a good yarn, one will on most occasions judge him a winner. On this occasion he has been successful again. To the misfortune of all his readers, Wilbur Smith died in 2021.
By Wilbur Smith (with Mark Chadbourn)
$28.99; 437 pp