Assegai by Wilbur Smith is a part of his “Courtney” novels, a series of adventures in Africa and the environs that follow a family line through the centuries, very similar to L‘Amour’s “Sackett” series. Much like L’Amour’s heroes, Leon Courtney learns the skills that will aid him in his adventure and receives “gifts” such as a signature weapon, to aid him in that quest.
The novel is set in the early 1900’s in British East Africa, with Courtney as a young lieutenant in His Majesty’s service. Events are immediately set into motion that leads him and the reader on a grand adventure. Courtney becomes a big game hunter and guide in the bush for rich, bored, adventure seekers, but also a spy for the British military as the scent of war is on the air. With Germany sharing a border with the colony, if war comes it will be from that direction. The Boer War is fresh in the minds of those that would side with Germany and the British who fought in that conflict.
Assegai is something H.R Haggard would envy, with the details of Africa’s vast country, its people, and the plentiful game that men sought after to prove themselves. Courtney is involved with Teddy Roosevelt’s safari of 1909, forming a fast friendship with his son Kermit. His actions during the famous safari make him popular for others seeking grand adventure. With careful guidance from his patron uncle who is on the fringe of military intelligence, Leon takes on German clients, learning vital information; bringing him in contact with the lovely and enigmatic Eva and the main villain Graph Otto.
The story is the splendid weaving of character, action, intrigue, and world building that I have encountered before reading Smith’s Birds of Prey. This is a great novel and story, with plenty of pulpy goodness to be found between the covers. Cliff hanger action and daring do and the hints of mysticism from Leon’s adoptive mother make the novel the stuff of Saturday Matinees.
Smith’s writing is historically rich, his descriptions vivid and bright. Conservationists and animal lovers be warned! Hunting is a major component of the novel’s narrative, with the wanton slaughter of many beasts wrought in gruesome detail. The author’s eye does not blink from the accuracy of those hunts for trophies and ivory. Great animals shot and left to rot and feed the carrion birds so that hunters can have a pelt or tusk. It is hard for the modern mind (and the mind of the hunter) to wrap around the idea of killing whole herds for sport, not for meat, or survival but to satisfy blood lust or to prove oneself in manly pursuits. Smith’s story telling abilities puts you in the middle of it, sighting down the barrel, taking the shot, and finishing the kill.
If you are looking for a new author or just a good period adventure, Wilbur Smith is worth the look. Assegai is a novel that is multi-layered as the title actually suggests. Though an assegai is the short fighting spear of the Zulu warriors and is highly visible in the book, the word has multilayered purpose throughout.
Great adventure and story telling at its best!