This early work from the nowdeceased O’Brian (Blue at the Mizzen, 1999, etc.) has nothing at all to do with the Iraqi leader. Written when the author was in his 20s, the story tells of a young mahout (elephant handler) whose father and grandfather also trained the great beasts. The third-person narrative chronicles Hussein’s childhood, his love for elephants and for a girl named Sashiya. Forced to flee his hometown in India, Hussein begins a series of adventures that includes stints as a snake charmer, spy, and thief, but he eventually returns to claim his love. O’Brian’s readable and gripping tale is aptly subtitled: it never strays beyond the realm of entertainment. Hussein doesn’t claim the reader’s affinity as the protagonists do in such later classics as The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore, in which the characters leap off the page and propel us from one event to the next. Also missing is the sense of place O’Brian usually manages to convey in his farflung adventures; perhaps because he hadn’t been there, the landscape of India never comes alive.
O’Brian’s faithful fans will be better served sticking to his seafaring adventures.