War Cry by Wilbur Smith and David Churchill (Historical Novel, 2017).
I found this sprawling historical novel readable, yet somewhat disappointing. Smith is a very experienced and respected historical novelist (take note of Stephen King’s front cover proclamation as to his abilities). He’s published several highly successful series, including the Courtney Family books, of which this is the latest. But like many ‘name’ authors getting up in years, it seems he has begun to ‘farm ideas out’ to one or more co-authors (in this case, David Churchill). Publishers tend to emphasize the big-name writer, while more-or-less downplaying the fact that a lesser known figure is partially (maybe even mostly) responsible for the final product. This is certainly a case in point, as one can see by simply looking at the book’s cover.
I know nothing about Churchill (fairly little about Smith as well, it must be admitted).
Such things are by no means a telltale warning of declining quality, though it often seems the case. But in any case, I only have this novel in front of me–so let’s stick to its strengths and weaknesses, okay?
The 496 pages of War Cry spans most of the first half of the 20th Century, bookended by the two World Wars. The focus is, of course, on members of the British/Colonial Courtney family–specifically Leon Courtney (a resident of the UK’s African colony of Kenya, former big game hunter turned WW I hero and rich land owner) and his bright, spirited daughter Saffron. The first World War was just the beginning of the family’s collision course with another key family, the von Meerbachs of Germany.
Leon kills the head of that aristocratic enemy family and in the process hooks up with beautiful spy who will be his wife (and Saffron’s mother). He also snags certain spoils of war that enable him to become the privileged land baron who gets to raise Saffron in the lap of colonial luxury.
This branch of the Courtney family lives an idyllic Kenyan lifestyle, though Saffron’s mother dies when the girl is quite young. Meanwhile, the von Meerbach clan gets even richer as powerful industrialists in slowly recovering, post-war Germany.
The Nazi’s come to power, with the oldest of the fatherless sons turning into an enthusiastic Fascist. His younger brother hates what his country is becoming, but tries to make the best of it.
Saffron goes off to fancy boarding schools in South Africa and later England; Leon deals with business and personal problems involving their widely scattered extended family; and the world drifts closer and closer to war, courtesy Hitler’s grimly vengeful agenda.
The two families fortunes will collide again and again (though often without either side fully appreciating the consequences or even at times that they had past encounters). There are betrayals and secrets hidden then revealed in the course of the novel, up to when WW II erupts and as its first years unfold.
Shortly before the outbreak of war, the bold Saffron and thoughtful Gerhard (the younger, better von Meerbach son) meet by accident and it’s love at first sight–with dire consequences for them and others.
Meanwhile the mysterious Mr. Brown (the British spy master who ‘ran’ Saffron’s mother) stalks through the book’s background, in search of new agents. And yes, Saffron is definitely on his radar–in part because of the Gerhard connection.
Forbidden love reaches new (and frankly slightly absurd) heights once open warfare develops, with unknowing fighter pilot Gerhard helping sink the ship on which Saffron and Leon are engaged in a secret mission for King and Country. Fortunately, Gerhard spots her in a lifeboat at the last second before finishing off the survivors. He pulls up and exchanges WAVES with her before departing.
Sorry for that bit of a spoiler, but the incident set off my nonsense-detector as much as anything I’ve read in a long time.
The rest of the book isn’t as dumb. The scenes of colonial life in Kenya are often quite good, in fact. The book shows a modern respect for the African natives (especially Leon’s friend and wartime comrade Manyoro) without glossing over the bigotry and paternalistic views common to other whites. The parallel struggles of Gerhard to hold onto some trace of human decency in the face of his brother’s position as gleeful flunky to the Nazi’s infamous SS “Blonde Beast” Reinhard Heydrich.
I can barely accept (by means of the usual ‘willing suspension of disbelief”) how Gerhard ended up a junior architect under Albert Speer and even once inadvertently came face-to-face with Hitler himself. But as noted above, the air/sea battle was just one weird happenstance too many for me. (Care to guess who took over the anti-aircraft gun that slightly damaged Gerhard’s plane when the ship’s regular gun crew were all killed or wounded? Right, her.)
But even extremely unlikely events aren’t what I hold against the book the most. It is of course part of a series and the second half of WW II is yet to come, including far more derring-do (and the inevitable reunion of the star-crossed lovers). It’s hard to bring off a satisfying end to a story when, in point of fact, the main plot is far from conclusion.
This time, the co-authors give us a last scene involving African tribal mysticism (courtesy Manyoro’s ancient, dying shaman-figure of a mother) that vaguely foretells the future and does actually tug the heartstrings–and yet for me it feels like something out of a totally different sort of book. It’s an excellent example of the biggest problem I have with this book: Too many developments that, while not necessarily bad in themselves, somehow feel ‘off’–resulting in a narrative that never (for me, at any rate) quite gels into a believable, coherent narrative.
I had a few other petty complaints–mostly the result of sloppy copy-editing. One minor character is mentioned as Morgan, until he dies and is called Mason. Oops! And I tripped over several less obvious typos/errors. And the title didn’t do that much for me–since so much of the book was involved with the years between the two wars.
Still, this is far from a bad novel. If you like historical action adventure, including a couple hot love/sex scenes and don’t mind frequent (and sometimes ridiculous) coincidences this one (and its inevitable sequels) might well please you.