Sending young Hal Courtney sailing the Golden Bough along the coast of East Africa, Smith (Desert God, 2014, etc.) enlists co-author Kristian to resume his swashbuckling 17th-century series featuring the Courtneys.
Angus Cochran, Earl of Cumbrae, known as the Buzzard, is a villain whose betrayal sent Hal’s father, Sir Francis, to the gallows; he himself escaped flame and cannon to wash up on Zanzibar's shores, albeit burned and missing an eye and arm. That back story is filled in as Cochran is enslaved by Maharajah Jahan, Omani Arab ruler of Zanzibar, a "cauldron of humanity where the blood of European, Bantu, and Arab was mingled" Jahan wants the Buzzard to kill Hal because Hal sailed in the cause of Christian Ethiopia against Muslim invaders. Jahan also hates Hal’s true love, Judith Nazet, a Joan of Arc–like Ethiopian general whose victories saved the Tabernacle and Holy Grail. The biblical legend is a minor element in a narrative mishmash of piracy, derring-do, and romance that becomes a hot mess of fights at sea, fights on land, murders, and arson, with heroes captured, enslaved, and sold on the auction block. Characters are black and white, not a nuance to be found, from Errol Flynn–like Hal to his wise and stoic right-hand man, Aboli, an Amadoda warrior, to a tangential antagonist named Pett, a psychopathic British East India Company clerk who appears only to up the gore factor. Rendered in a florid, verbose voice laced with flowery descriptions, the tale wanders through declarations of vengeance, hairsbreadth escapes, and pirate hideaways, leaving a trail of unrelenting violence—blindfolded fights to the death and execution by rhinoceros—all the way to Sir Francis’ treasure hidden at Elephant Lagoon.
Add a Dutch captain in flight after seducing an admiral’s daughter, a duplicitous British consul, and a rescue from a Heart of Darkness colonial gold mine, and there’s enough action to keep pages turning.