Wilbur Smith. Run in certain circles and you’ll hear his name extolled as one of the premiere authors of our time. Spend some time in different circles and you won’t hear ‘Wilbur Smith’ and ‘author’ mentioned in the same sentence without a heavy dose of irony. I fell in this less effusive latter camp, so it was with much trepidation that I approached River God. I was very aware that this was not going to a deep intellectual novel, but that’s ok. Not every novel needs to be a social commentary or a heart-opening, soul-wrenching tales of humanity; authors are entitled to write entertaining action novels without any depths. It’s alright. Only the worst intellectual elitists are going to hold that against you. The problem is when your entertaining action novels are so ridiculous that it becomes awkward to read. I wouldn’t say that River God got that far, but it was a little straining at times.
River God is the story of Taita an ancient Egyptian Slave who invented everything from the proper medical procedures to perfecting the wheel. And he has mystical powers. Yawn. Taita aids two lovers his Mistress L-something who is the most beautiful girl in the world and Tanus who is perfect and large. Together they save Egypt from everything in the world ever and fight past those who would see their perfect love denied. Double Yawn.
When reading action adventure novels set in ancient times (and yes, that is a common occurrence) I always come back to the Troy Series by David Gemmel (Lord of the Silver Bow, The Shield of Thunder and The Fall of Kings). Those novels had many of the same settings and themes as River God, but approached them with far more depth. I’m not talking about a depth that pushes the novel beyond the typical action-adventure read, but rather a depth that adds a layer of believability to the motivations and emotions of the characters. For large portions of the novel it felt like I was reading about a bunch of cardboard cut-out caricatures doing heroic things rather than the three-dimensional conflicted (but still entirely awesome) characters populating Gemmel’s series. Additionally I felt like River God had uneven pacing and an unsatisfying ending. So, not exactly a glowing review.
If you realise that Wilbur Smith is writing for the purpose of entertaining a particular type of reader then River God is not bad. Even then, I still think the David Gemmel is better (at least when he’s being realistic).