Audiobook Review: Assegai, by Wilbur Smith

A few weeks ago, I went on a long-ass road trip … which means it’s time for an audiobook review! Unfortunately the audiobook went a little longer than I anticipated, so I haven’t had the chance to finish it (and write a review) ’til now!

Audiobooks are kind of odd– while services like audible provide tons and tons of reading (er, listening) material, there are still a lot of books that never get converted to an audiobook format. Likewise, of those books that DO get recorded, it seems that a great many of them are a bit outside of my typical schlocky sci-fi wheelhouse. Or, well, at least the ones that wind up on the clearance rack at Half Price Books typically are.

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I disagree with King’s quote there, but what can you do.

Which brings us to Wilbur Smith’s Assegai: an interesting bit of historical fiction/Men’s Adventure/Pulp. Plus, it was under ten bucks at HPB, so that’s a start. I didn’t know it at the time, but Assegai is one of the later books in Smith’s loosely interconnected series about Africa.

Simon Vance does a good job reading (narrating?) the Assegai audiobook, cycling through a frankly challenging number of accents: English, American, German, African, Afrikaans, and probably a few more I’m forgetting.

If you’re feeling charitable, you could describe Assegai as a Bildungsroman– it centers around Leon Courtney (who apparently is related to the protagonists of some other Smith novels), a young officer in the King’s African Rifles. Leon is, of course, ruggedly square-jawed, a master horseman, a crack shot, and a whiz at languages– pretty much Harry Flashman without all the womanizing and cowardice. Assegai follows Leon from his adventures in the King’s African Rifles, to his career as a Big Game Hunter, and his exploits as a spy in the days leading up to WWI.

As one could expect from a book set in early 20th century British Africa, Assegai is super, super colonialist. On the one hand, Smith is actually from Africa, and his books were banned in apartheid-era South Africa, so I guess that’s a point in his favor? Even still, there’s a definite sense of ‘oh, the British ruling big chunks of the world was the best thing ever, wasn’t it?’ Leon’s Masai sidekick/blood brother Manyoro is all too happy to do whatever Leon says– as is pretty much any other non-white character in the book. And that’s before you get into Manyoro’s mother, a witch doctor who gives out actual no-shit prophecies as the plot demands. She’s a literal magical negro. So, uh, yeah.

And then there’s also the whole thing where Leon loves Africa so much that he has to show it by … shooting pretty much the entire cast of The Lion King. Though Smith goes out of his way to contrast ‘good’ hunting (you know, one shot, one kill … for trophies) vs. ‘bad’ hunting (killing for killing’s sake, using more than one bullet, etc).

A heaping dose of imperialism is pretty much to be expected in a book like this … but what took me off guard was how ridiculously Freudian the book is. I mean, in the first chapter, Leon is chased around by a bunch of rebellious tribesmen, who are led by an evil witch doctor who literally wants to cut Leon’s nuts off.

(Sidenote: once Leon and Manyoro make their heroic escape, said ball-hungry witch doctor is never mentioned again).

I could write that off as standard pulpy sadism … until a chapter or two later, in which the old (of the terrible age of 29) widow Leon lost his virginity to gives him one of her dead husband’s guns. Yep. And, it’s with this big-ass elephant rifle that Leon goes on to become a Big Game Hunter. I wrote this off as a fluke … until the sadomasochistic, luger-toting German Princess shows up. Oh, and she also might be an actual satanist, too. It’s … weird.

In any case, Leon finally meets a nice girl– who happens to be the mistress of an Evil German Count, straight out of Central Casting. Seriously, dude has a dueling scar, a metal hand, and a no-shit zeppelin. Which, well, is fun in the ridiculously pulpy sense, but I get the feeling Smith’s kiiiind of trying to play it straight so it’s more ‘legitimate.’ Seriously, I kind of wish Smith had abandoned any pretense of historical accuracy and added some talking gorillas or something.

All and all, Assegai is entertaining, and just crazy enough to make me go ‘wait what?’ every now and again, so Smith gets points for that. Even still, the book drags a little in places– Smith easily could have cut a couple of chapters here and there without losing much. I mean, I kind of accidentally skipped the penultimate disc, and I barely even noticed (and even then I was able to figure out enough of the plot to figure out what was going on). That’s … probably not a good sign. On the other hand, I might give some of Wilbur Smith’s other books a try, so long as I find them in the clearance rack or something.

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