“Best historical novelist? I say Wilbur Smith, with his swashbuckling novels of Africa. The bodices rip and the blood flows. You can get lost in Wilbur Smith and misplace all of August.” – Stephen King
I first read Wilbur Smith in high school – it was one of his most famous novels, and probably the only one translated in Bulgaria at the time – A Falcon Flies. I was enthralled – it had everything a book lover could hope for – adventure, love story, slave markets, exuberant African jungle and hidden waterfalls, and something that always makes me happiest – solid historical facts, masterully interwoven into the story. A Falcon Flies taught me more about slave trade than any history lesson or documentary ever did. But then the book was over (unsatisfyingly for me, I might add, because the main character ended up with the boring suitor) and I tought that was it. It was years later that I discovered how many more of those there are! And luckily, by then I had no problem reading them in English.
So, Men of Men is the sequal to A Falcon Flies. I was beyond excited when it arrived, but there was a bit of disappointment, too – I had already forgotten most of the plot and characters, save two or three. No matter – the book is great!
The first roughley two-thirds pick up the story of Zouga Ballantyne years after A Falcon Flies, as he arrives at the newly setup Kimberley diamond mine (today known as Big Hole – and visible from space!) with his wife and two grown sons to make a fortune, which would allow him to go back north to Matabeleland – the beautiful treasure-laden herd-trodden land of the Matabele tribe. After dramatic turns of fate and many reunions, the story moves to Matabeleland, where a war is coming between the white men and the impi of the Matabele king. It’s a glorious pageturner.
Of course there are some legacies of the 1980s that bother me – like the depiction of women – which can at times be inspiringly forward, like Robyn, but then swoon like crazy at the sight of men (like Mungo St. John, who is, in all honesty, an actual villain) or marry the likes of Ralph (who is of the opinion that a wife needs a good beating and a kitchen to cook your meals in??? – but that was only mentioned once and was not very consistent with the rest of his chapters, so I decided to ignore and forget).
What bothered me the most was the unresolved or rather non-existing personal conflict, which must have existed for Zouga especially, but also for Ralph, when facing against the Matabele. I feel it was never mentioned. I definitely missed some introspection there.
Maybe that is left for the third book (can’t wait!)