(Credit: Wilbur Smith and Pan MacMillan Australia)

Given that this novel was first written in 1964, you might wonder what on earth I’m doing reading it now. Well I was looking for a book to recommend for my husband. It seemed like lots of people like Wilbur Smith — indeed I enjoyed River God when I read it when I was younger. My husband only like books where there is lots of action. And a lot does happen in When the lion feeds, but despite this, I felt dissatisfied when I finished the last page.

Sean Courtney is a powerfully drawn character, a man’s man in a world where men rule. He is an arrogant, but talented boy growing up on a cattle farm in Natal in South Africa. The story follows him as he grows up, watching him recover after he is buffeted by tragedy after tragedy. He maims, kills, builds and loses fortunes. I normally get extremely worried when characters in books start losing lots of money. But I didn’t bat an eyelid when it happened to Sean. He is painted as so capable and the land of South Africa as so fruitful for opportunists that you know he will build his fortunes again.

There are a number of things that I don’t like about Sean. One of them is how he treats his first affair with the opposite sex. We are supposed to hate the girl as she’s a pushy lady who grasps at what she can. She offers herself to Sean and he abuses her offer terribly, taking what he wants and then discarding her for other pastures as he desires. I don’t blame her for what she did later, as he really did act like a boor. When he comes into money he also behaves atrociously, although he reforms this. Of course, I should praise Wilbur Smith for painting a flawed character. But he’s so flawed I just couldn’t like him. I think this is why I struggled to enjoy the book.

For me, the saving grace of the novel were two other characters. One of them was a Zulu warrior, who, for reasons I really don’t understand, decides to throw in his lot with Sean. He brings humour into the novel and gives us a glimpse into Zulu culture which was fascinating. I saw so much of the spear maidens from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time in him that it made me wonder where Jordan was getting his inspiration from. The other character I loved was Africa herself. Smith paints it all so vividly, you could imagine you are there in the country’s bountiful expanses — beautiful yet so very deadly. He grew up there, so he was writing what he knows.

I haven’t decided yet if I will continue to read the Courtney series. If it’s all as depressing as this novel was, I might give it a miss. If anyone wants to push me either way, you can try.

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