Birds of Prey
Wilbur Smith
St. Martin's, 1997
ISBN 0-312-15791-6

Review by Paul Varbedian

The new novel Birds of Prey is the twenty-sixth by the South African, Wilbur Smith. Half of these feature tales of the Courtney and Ballantyne families. The remainder are primarily stand-alone novels. I have read approximately one-third of the total collection, prefering those dealing with bygone centuries.

My favorite is River God and I believe this to be Smith's finest effort. However, Birds of Prey is a bubbling and overflowing, lusty stew of grand adventure some three centuries ago. Wilbur Smith does not have the literary expertise of Patrick O'Brian but the man does weave a delightful tale in Birds of Prey.

In the year 1677, a English privateer is patiently patrolling the area off the southern tip of Africa. In command is Sir Francis Courteney and with him is his son, Hal. They search the horizon for one of the heavily laden Dutch ships, returning to Holland with cargo of gold, silver, spices and other valuable goods from the East Indies. Sir Francis' letter of Marque results from the war between England and Holland. Franky, as he is fondly called by his contempories, is a highly skilled mariner, a widower and a devoutly religious man. His son is a fine lad and an apt pupil in the craft of ship handling. Their ship, Lady Edwina, mounts eight culverins and ten demi-culverins along with a prime crew of English seamen. Hal, in the maintop, spots the sails of a ship in the distance and it grows larger as it moves toward the Lady Edwina.

The above is the opening to a novel crammed with the ingredients of high adventure on the sea and the largely unexplored continent of Africa. There is a bounty of action with the roar of cannon, clash of edged weapons and the smoke of cumbersome matchlocks. Along with the battle action is a wide range of good and evil types, some quite bizarre. There is fearful movement through the unknown continent. The matchlocks are poor comfort against the most dangerous animals. It's all here...from the most noble actions to the most vile of dark deeds.

I was quite suprised at Smith's preoccupation with vivid descriptions of sexual congress as I seem to recall that his prior novel's that I have read were more discreet. In any event, these vivid scenes add emphasis to the oft used term, "lusty novel". Not really a "bodice ripper" as the participants deftly discard attire to save on wear and tear.

Although River God is still my favorite of Smith's efforts, I highly recommend Birds of Prey as a fascinating read of some 550 pages.

Copyright © 1997 by Paul Varbedian
Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.

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