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Rich historical material: the founder of modern Ethiopia was mystical, mad Emperor Theodore II, whose glorious unification degenerated into repression, civil war, and the imprisonment of British envoys. . . which led to a British invasion in 1868. But though first-novelist Smith approaches all the incidents here with sturdy craft and an eye for personality, he never finds the sharp focus needed to make dramatized history into satisfying fiction. Beginning this book in 1864, some months after Theodore's seemingly absurd imprisonment of Consul Charles Cameron, Smith comes closest to such a focus with the character of British envoy Hormuzd Rassam, an Oxford-educated Arab who longs to ""be English"" and hopes that his mission--persuading Theodore to release Cameron--will lift him from the mire of lowly colonial officialdom. Cultural identity-crisis, governmental manipulations, idealism vs. pragmatism--all these interweave nicely as Rassam (with a cynical colleague) stews on the Red Sea isle of Massawa, waiting for some response to his letters from Theodore. . . and ignoring Massawa's illegal slave trade. But meanwhile, less successfully, Smith fills in Theodore's curious but unilluminated life story--from tribal upstart to warrior leader to ambitious emperor to disappointed eccentric, ever guided by prophecies and visions involving the coming of a far-away ""Light Bringer."" And when Rassam, feeling betrayed by the Foreign Office, disobeys orders and heads for a face-to-face meeting with Theodore at last, the novel spreads instead of zeroing in, adding characters and sub-plots as it moves from crisis to crisis: Theodore welcomes the envoy and accedes to his demands, thinking at first that he is the ""Light Bringer,"" but then he imprisons Rassam--who is nonetheless inspired by Theodore's purity and faith; Sir Robert Napier assembles an expeditionary force to invade, with Irish mutinies along the way; and finally ""Light Bringer"" Napier storms the fortress of now-suicidal Theodore. . . as Rassam stagily announces one of the novel's blurry messages. (""Haven't you done enough to him? You took his clothes and his dignity. Do you have to take his dreams away, too?"") Too many characters, too many themes (the evils of colonialism, the burdens of kingship, the nature of loyalty, the price of progress, the clash of cultures, the failure of idealism, etc.): Smith hasn't managed to distill it all down to effective essentials. But readers with strong interest in history may find this intriguing--and, despite some anachronisms in the dialogue, Smith demonstrates a strong feel for atmosphere and a quiet, straightforward prose style which will serve him well once he becomes more selective in shaping historical ingredients.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Random House