A section from
‘A Jedi shall not know hatred, nor fear… nor love.’ from Star Wars Episode II
Assegai - Wilbur Smith
1906, British East Africa, now Kenya.
Leon Courtney’s story begins with the seduction of an older woman, just like the story of his uncle – General Sir Penrod Ballantyne.
However, women are immediately dispatched with shortly after the incident, for a while at least, and the story continues in male-dominated bastions of the military and big-game hunting. The book has vivid descriptions, strategies and nuances of big-game hunting in Africa, and the lifestyle and moral codes of hunters.
Leon is the son of Ryder Courtney – a trader seasoned in doing business in Africa, who along with Penrod Ballantyne clashed with the Mahdi in Sudan in 1888. Unlike his father Leon isn’t inclined towards commerce but is just as recalcitrant, and leaves home to join the British military.
His career in Ballantyne’s regiment – the King’s African Rifles is nearly ended after a vindictive senior officer has Leon court-martialed after Leon’s long absence following a disastrous encounter with Nandi tribals. Leon is saved by the timely arrival and testimony of his Masai sergeant Manyoro.
Manyoro and Leon formed a strong bond after the encounter with the Nandi tribe. Leon’s short stay in Manyoro’s Masai village also brings him close to Manyoro’s mother – Lusima - a formidable witch doctor, who comes to play an important role in Leon’s life.
Leon however feels that his career in the military is over, until Ballantyne recruits him to spy on German East Africa and report back all movements of man and machine. Leon’s cover? Professional hunter. Given Leons tendency towards hunting while in the military, the cover is apt. And perfect for extracting information from not only locals but also from wealthy clients, as Ballantyne explains.
‘Leon, my lad, I cannot believe you’re completely unaware of your winning ways. People seem to like you, especially the Frauleins and the mademoiselles. Safari life, being close to Mother Nature and her creatures, has a way of inducing even the most reticent to relax, lower their guards and speak more freely. Not to mention the way it also looses the strings of female corsets and drawers. And why would a senior figure in the Kaiser’s Germany, a major arms manufacturer or one of their consorts, suspect a fresh-faced innocent like you of being a nefarious secret-agent?’
Among Leons more colourful clients are Theodore Roosevelt’s son – Kermit Roosevelt, who is determined to prove himself in his illustrious father’s eyes. And the fifty two year old German Princess Isabella Medeleine Hoherberg von Preussen von und zu, who by day repeatedly reiterates to Leon, ‘I want to kill animals. Many animals.’ And who by night shares her bed and secrets with him.
Through the expeditions the subtleties of hunting big-game are shown; like how bait is laid for lions, how to decipher the beast’s warning signals and when to shoot. Hunting big-game is described as a science and business for the professional hunter, and culture for Europe and America’s well heeled, but foremost for the fearsome Masai. What is evident is the respect that Leon, and the author, have for the animals - during and after the kill, and for the people of the land – the Masai.
Enter the alpha-male antagonist and his enigmatic mistress, soon to be the love interest of our fearless hero. Graf Otto von Meerbach - chief of Meerbach Motor Works, supplier to the German military and hidden representative of the Kaiser, and his consort Eva von Wellberg.
The hunting expedition is a cover for Meerbach’s real purpose, which is closely related with the impending onset of the First World War. Of course this fact is suspected only by Leon’s spymaster and uncle – Ballantyne.
What follows are Leon’s dangerous hunts with Meerbach and hidden liaisons with Eva and the unraveling of Meerbach’s true motives.
Assegai is written in strict Wilbur Smith form of adventure in Africa - The villain with fearsome mental and physical prowess, the simple but effective hero who overcomes the odds with luck and tenacity and the sinfully attractive damsel in distress.
Where Leon fits in the Courtney saga
Leon is the son of Ryder Courtney and Saffron Benbrook. Ryder is an adventurer and businessman based in Africa, and the brother of Waite Courtney. Saffron’s twin sister - Amber is General Penrod Ballantyne’s wife. Their elder sister - Rebecca Benbrook along with Ryder and Penrod were the central characters in ‘The Triumph of the Sun’ in which Wilbur Smith brought the Ballantynes and Courtneys together.
Wilbur Smith brought his Ballantyne and Courtney sagas together in The Triumph of the Sun, and has kept them together for this novel also. Though this is a Courtney novel, Penrod Ballantyne is an important character in the story, and an influential force in Leon Courtney’s life.
Leon’s character and story is similar to another Wilbur Smith novel - A Time To Die, in which Sean Courtney (also a professional hunter and son of a business man Shasa Courtney) is forced into a military situation to rescue his love interest - Claudia, who is the daughter of a client.
Like many of Wilbur Smith’s heroes, Leon is an ace hunter and crack shot with a rifle. He embraces the local culture and people to his own end, but his appreciation of their value in his life is genuine.
Penrod Ballantyne, Spymaster.
The book also shows development of Penrod Ballantyne’s character.
In ‘The Triumph of the Sun’, Ballantyne was a military officer and a spy, with a reputation of a ladies man. He carried out reconnaissance missions from deep within enemy ranks with great success, blended with and befriended the Arab people, fought the ‘Mahdi’s’ warlords on their own turf and got the better of them, and seduced women of all races indiscriminately.
In ‘Assegai’ Penrod is now a general and a spymaster in the king’s army in British East Africa. He is a master manipulator and even the protagonist doesn't get the better of him.
Graf Otto von Meerbach’s character is made along the same lines as Osman Atalan - Penrod Ballantyne’s arch-enemy in ‘The Triumph of the Sun’.
Like Atalan, Meerbach is a larger-than-life alpha-male whose abilities seem to dwarf the hero’s. Both are avid and competent hunters, warlords in their own right despite being subjects of the greater evil and in possession of the main love interest for the major duration of the story.
While Atalan was a warlord under the ‘Mahdi’s’ command, Meerbach is an important supplier of the Kaiser’s army.
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