Following is a review of Assegai by Wilbur Smith, St. Martins Press, NY, 2009.
Smith has his formula for adventure action books down pat. This one is no exception. Set in Kenya before World War One, the author weaves his story around actual historical figures such as Lord Delamare, President Roosevelt and Colonel Lettow von Vorbeck. However, the tale’s main characters are fictional and often outrageously so. They are too handsome, too honorable, too cruel, too evil, too knowledgeable, too brave, or too beautiful. Even so their entrance and exit from the plot provides the pace of the story.
The basic plot revolves around a stock Smith character this time Leon Courtney, a young man who comes into his own as a hero, hunter and spy. He kills many animals - always minutely described - beds a series of women, relies on his African guides for bush and cultural savvy and despite flirting with disastrous failure time and again, ultimately succeeds in all endeavors. As noted, it is a well told tale.
Assegai is fiction so the author can create geography, which he does. He also throws in a bit of Swahili, which helps shore up the Kenyan setting , but the title is strange. Assegai is a Zulu word from southern Africa that is the name for a stabbing spear used there. Although the Masai people of Kenya also use a similar weapon, the Swahili name for that spear is mkuki or fumo, neither of which, I guess, are as recognizable to modern readers as assegai. I first picked up the book thinking it was about southern Africa.
Wilbur Smith’s novels always require a certain suspension of belief by the reader, but his African settings are valid and his tales move along. Assegai is a great beach or airplane book.