I suspect Wilbur Smith is a closet anthropologist…not just because of the attention he gives animals in some of his novels, but because of the human actions and interactions he depicts–usually according to type. In this novel especially, Smith writes like somebody who is a manosphere junkie…except he doesn’t use the lingo.
There is a beta protagonist (Ryder Courtney); an alpha hero (Penrod Ballentyne), some nubile Victorian-era babes rife with symptoms of hypergamy/AFBB…and a whole lot of blood and thunder.
All these characters, and more, intersect at the siege of Khartoum. They are all depicted masterfully by the writer, who gets you to care about them before shoving them to the brink of death repeatedly. At any point in this book there’s a lot at stake and the suspense is high.
Like most true alpha dogs, Ballentyne is willing to take bigger risks than the average Joe. While this elevates his status in the eyes of women from both cultures (Muslim and Western), it also tends to put him in the most hopeless situations. His life dangles by a precarious thread for most of the second act, though he earns the respect of his bloodthirsty captors just being himself (a theme I’ve noticed in other Smith novels). And also like most true alpha dogs, Ballentyne is willing to dish out harsh preemptive justice, retaliation, and revenge, with little to no remorse. And he’s certainly not above using people to get what he wants.
Courtney is a good man who is moral to a fault. He’s sympathetic, smart, and certainly not lacking in courage, but destined to be a beta provider for a headstrong woman (of which the Victorian era had a few). There’s one scene in particular where he really needs a big dose of alpha ruthlessness, but his untimely mercy puts everyone at risk and causes unnecessary suffering and death.
This novel accelerates to a quick start and romps like a steamroller right to the end.
This is high adventure worth reading for a number of reasons.