Golden Lion | Wilbur Smith and Giles Kristian | 2015 | HarperCollins | 402p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1670 and the war between the English and the Dutch has finally ended, bringing peace to the high seas off Africa. That, at least, is the theory but this far from Europe the seas are lawless and there are riches, both slaves and jewels, that are well worth a fight. Hal Courtney is now captain of the Golden Bough. He’s a young man but he’s seen more than he should have, lost more people than he should have, but now he has a chance of happiness. He is at sail to collect from Ethiopia his beloved, Judith Nazet, a great warrior and general in the infant king’s army. Once together they will head south down the African coast to reclaim his father’s treasure.
But as soon as Judith is aboard plans begin to fall awry, the Dutch are after Hal and his ship and they’re not the only ones. A man who is now just half a man, the Buzzard, is after vengeance that only the painful death of Hal, and the theft of Judith, will satisfy. It’s all just a game for the rulers of Africa, especially king Jahan of Zanzibar, as they watch their European overlords drag each other down into a watery grave.
Golden Lion is the latest, the fourteenth, in Wilbur Smith’s long-established Courtney series. I’ve not read the others but this didn’t seem to matter as the book presents a self-contained adventure, depicting the romance of Hal and Judith and the forces against them, which are substantial, powerful and deadly. I’ve not read any Wilbur Smith novels for years, having loved River God and the early historical mysteries such as The Sunbird, but what attracted me to Golden Lion like a magnet was the name of Giles Kristian on the cover as co-author. I am a huge fan of Giles Kristian’s novels and, while I would always prefer to read his solo books – whether of Vikings or Civil War brothers at arms, I couldn’t let Golden Lion slip by unread.
For me, though, Golden Lion felt wholly Wilbur Smith, which may well mean that Giles Kristian has done an excellent job in adapting his own style to the one called for here. I missed the beautiful, visceral brilliance of Kristian’s heroic sagas. The passion and insight is absent here, so too is the taste of the sea on my lips or the stink of blood. But, as I had to keep reminding myself, this is a different kettle of fish entirely and is a Courtney saga novel.
Golden Lion is a swashbuckling high seas adventure that has the potential to thrill from its opening pages – as a burnt and ravaged living corpse is pulled from the sea – until its final chapters set in the lethal African bush. Along the way, we’re taken into exotic Zanibar, with its mix of dire slave markets and opulent harems. This is all painted in vivid Hollywood technicolour. I’ve spent time on Zanzibar and so I loved revisiting it. There are exciting battles at sea, storms and duels. There is love and, perhaps even more passionate, there is hate.
The one aspect that I didn’t care for is its depiction of women. Judith might be a mighty general by reputation but that’s not the Judith we see here, even if she’s useful in a fight. Most of the few women we meet are harem (or hyena) fodder and Judith is no different and there are a few salacious details which I found unpleasant. The ‘General Nazet’ tag felt disingenuous. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Golden Lion and found it a fast, escapist and light read with some fun set scenes.
My biggest hope with Golden Lion is that, just as Kristian’s fans have been drawn to this, a percentage of Wilbur Smith’s enormous fanbase will feel inspired to take a chance and dive in to the books of Giles Kristian, which I suspect that they will enjoy every bit as much as Smith’s.