Smith, grandmaster of the Grand African Adventure, quits his familiar southern haunts for the wastes of the Sudan, where wait the Siege of Khartoum, fates worth than death and more corpses than stars in the heaven.
Fans of the literary novel, if they are ever so rash as to dip into one of Smith’s Super Sagas (The Blue Horizon, 2003, etc.), are likely to swoon under the onslaught of the old-fashioned writing. So many similes. So many metaphors. It’s just not done. Not these days. And yet here they are! “ . . . her voice quivered like the strings of a lute plucked by skilled finger.” “When he stood naked she rose and stepped back to admire him.” “ ‘You bring me vast treasure, lord.’ ” Political correctness? Forget it. General “Chinese” Gordon, doomed commandant of the city at the forks of the Nile, may be a little crazy, but he’s English, so he’s honest and the crazed hordes across the Nile, who wait to rape and sack Khartoum, that isolated outpost of the Empire, are Less Than Human. The Muslim holy man stirring the tribes to murderous passion is a cynical despoiler of women. And the scenes of elephant slaughter! Gads! Who still reads this stuff? And yet . . . Smith’s way with a story always prevails. Stick with him through the outrageous plot he has spun around the real-life siege and you will be riding on the fleetest camels, running nearly naked beside the finest horses, sitting in on serial defilements of a Valiant English Woman who finds pleasure on the very first try, and you will get sucked into what the movies used to call sweeping Cinemascope adventure and, like that ravished young lady, you will submit. You’ll learn a little bit about the Sudan and its wretched history and, in the end, you’ll see the coming of Modernity, and you will, like Smith, in his own way, find it disturbing and wrong. And you will have had a few good hours away from the current intractable Imperial crisis.
Nobody does it better. But almost nobody even tries.