Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Review: Birds of Prey by Wilbur Smith

Wilbur Smith's Birds of Prey is one episode of his long Courteney Adventures series that relate the tales of several members of the long line of adventurers in different times and places. While I've not read the rest of the series, I picked up Birds of Prey, since it is set in the 17th century.

Before I go into the story, I must note that, for a historical fiction enthusiast, the novel has one glaring problem: Wilbur Smith actually uses the foreword to tell the readers that he did not even attempt to use period-accurate names for the ships or firearms in order to make the story more "approachable" to the modern reader. I'm not sure if I'm alone here, but I rather imagined that people read historical fiction partly to actually learn something about the period. But, onto the story and some spoilers that mostly affect the very beginnings of it...

The hero of the tale is Hal Courteney, who serves on his father's ship during the war between England and Holland. The story quickly sets up the idea that Hal's purpose is to inherit his father's place and continue their family line. However, despite this obvious plot point, it takes a surprisingly long time before the father actually manages to die.

Structurally, the novel is very uneven: for the first two thirds, nothing much happens and when something does happen, it takes ages to do so. All the excitement and surprise is removed when the characters first plan their moves and then execute those plans, basically forcing the reader to go through the entire thing twice. The plot moves at an astoundingly slow pace. The chapters are long. THEN, the last third of the novel seems to be written by an entirely different author. Suddenly the plot begins to speed along, all the detailed descriptions are forgotten, the scenes are short and to the point and the characters travel back and forth doing all sorts of stuff. Where the first two thirds were too slow, the last third is much too fast: the author begins to tell, rather than show, the events to the reader ("then they did this and then they did that").

A further point that separates the first two thirds from the last is the sudden change in Hal's character: early on, he falls in love with a Muslim woman and never seems to mind this difference between them. Then, in the last third, he is suddenly a devout Christian who is motivated entirely by his faith and basically turns his back to his friends. There's no character development to explain this, it just happens and the author expects the reader to buy it.

Another annoying point is the stupidity of the characters. Early on, Hal and his father have captured a great prize and have found a place to careen their ship. They are soon confronted by two old comrades and one of them, a fellow called Buzzard, demands part of the prize for himself. The protagonists suspect that they may be in trouble. Hal's father looks at the stars and sees his imminent death. Then, they witness the Buzzard preparing his ship for a possible shore bombardment and they come up with a counter plan. And after that, they are warned by another character that the visiting captain is planning something evil. But, even with all these warnings and preparations, the protagonists choose to go to their tents and sleep when the night of the betrayal is upon them, so that they can be surprised with their pants down and have to exceed themselves in order to survive the battle.

It is OK to have characters do some dumb stuff once in a while. But when they are this dumb after so many warnings, something is not quite right.

The last point I'm going to mention is that, early on, the author seems to be obsessed with male genitalia and you'll get to know how big or floppy each male character's member is sooner or later. There's no explanation to this enthusiasm and, for some reason, this only happens early on: characters who are introduced later in the story are not given the same treatment.

Overall, I found the characterisation shallow and there was little or no character development. Motivations were often unclear. There were some pretty descriptions of African landscapes, but they did not compensate for the failures of the rest of the story. If the first two thirds had been cut in half in length and the last third fleshed out a little bit, this might have been an enjoyable, although simple, story. But, as it is, it was too uneven to enjoy very much.