by Wilbur Smith
Published by St. Martin's Press
619 pages, 1999
Buy it online
More Than a Big Wind
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Less than a third of the way through Wilbur Smith's Monsoon I began to wonder what more could possibly happen. I felt as though I'd read two book's worth of adventure already. Smith has crammed Monsoon with an almost frightening amount of stuff. We've got pirates, treasure, kidnapping, slavery, ransom, romance, sword fights, intrigue, filial loyalty... for sheer breadth of exciting things, Monsoon is in a class by itself. Other writers might give you some of this, but Smith does it all: and with a great deal of passion and panache, to boot.
Monsoon is Smith's 27th novel and the tenth that deals with the Courtney family, but there is little of the feel of a continuing saga about the book. Monsoon stands alone and re-encountering the Courtneys hampers the story not at all. Previous readers will feel like they're getting news about old acquaintances. New readers won't feel like they're missing out. And if they did, who would notice? There are enough things going on here to keep you busy. One is reminded a little of the way James Clavell used recurring families and characters in novels that were otherwise very different in thrust and scope. Reminded a little, also, of the way James Michener would use the same family throughout one of his epics: doing so gave the story a nice continuity, but didn't alter the outcome. That's how we can approach the Courtneys. They are carefully drawn enough that we care about them. Imagining "the apple falling not far from the tree," in each subsequent generation does not require a leap of faith.
This time we're at the beginning of the 18th century and the focus is on Tom, the second son of Sir Hal Courtney. Tom has a nasty elder brother named William who will inherit their father's wealth and titles. He also has a twin -- Guy -- who is lackluster enough to warrant little notice throughout the book. Dorry is the youngest brother, the golden-haired angel of a child who falls into enemy hands while Sir Hal is off fighting pirates on the high seas.
Realize going in that Monsoon is one of those glorious tomes that will injure your foot if you drop it on it. On its side, Monsoon looks like three books, stacked close together. The word epic barely does the book justice, though gargantuan begins to approach it. It isn't merely the physical breadth and weight of the book that sends me diving for these terms, but rather the scope of situations and emotions that his characters must pass through. Smith doesn't meander pointlessly through the situations he creates and there's seldom time to blink as one adventure seems to flow right into the next, sometimes with only a few pages separating them. For instance, just a few pages after a near fatal fight with his brother William, Tom is in London securing a letter of marque from the appropriate noble cheese. Scant pages later, he's assembled a team of seaman and is off aboard a small ship in order to secure a larger one: a sloop that he and his crew steal from the French in the middle of the night. This alone might be enough of a plot to satisfy some authors for a whole book. But not Smith: this action takes place over the course of just 20 pages.
What makes all of this seam-bursting excitement possible is Smith's spare and businesslike prose. Smith doesn't waste a lot of energy on superfluous description. Rather he bullets the plot ahead with action, action and still more action.
The blade came clear with a soft nick and quivered in his right hand like a beam of solid sunlight. The reflections danced on the walls and the ceiling above where he stood four-square to face William on equal terms at last. William came up short as the inlaid steel weaved like a standing cobra in his face and winked gold sparks into his eyes.
"Yes, brother. Now we will finish this once and for all." Tom threw William's threat back into his teeth, and came forward, staring deep into his brother's dark eyes, right foot leading, taking light, rapid steps. William gave ground before his advance and Tom saw fear bloom in his eyes. He realized what he had known all along: William was a coward.\
There are writers who handle prose more deftly than Smith. Writers with the power to describe the drop of dew on a rose petal with such accuracy you can almost feel the moisture. Smith is, perhaps, not one of these writers. But for pure excitement and adventure, and for sheer action it's impossible to imagine a modern storyteller who can even come close to rivaling Wilbur Smith. | June 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.