Tuesday, 6 August 2013

High-Seas Hazards

This review was written over a year ago, perhaps at a time when Somali pirates were a big deal before Snowden, Tahrir Square 2.0 and the whole mess in Syria came along. It's been said that the increased scrutiny of the Horn of Africa has made piracy less attractive there, but with these things, one never knows.

High-seas hazards
Kill some time with some fast-paced, lightweight pirate fiction

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 06 August 2013

Prolific African-born author Wilbur Smith's books might be "airport novels" (according to "Wilbur Smith can't stop the words" in The Star, June 21, 2011) but from experience, they can be fun, albeit hefty.

So maybe they should only be read if one knows one's flight will be delayed by some three to five hours. Many of Smith's books can demand a lot of one's attention.

Though better known for his epic historical novels set in Africa, Smith has written other standalone novels as well. His latest of the latter, Those in Peril, is an action-adventure tale of terrorism, piracy, religious extremism, vengeance, betrayal, sacrifice and covert operations.

This leaner book also lacks his hallmark lush, voluminous prose. Maybe he's slowing down. With over 30 novels to his name, it's probably time he did.

A haughty ice queen of a woman, widowed Hazel Bannock is the boss of Bannock Oil. In her employ is Hector Cross, a security expert who's also a former member of the British Special Air Service (SAS).

Though their first meeting is hardly cordial, readers will know they'd hook up at some point. Readers who don't are the ones knocked out cold by the clues thrown at them.

Elsewhere, in the Indian Ocean, Hazel's headstrong daughter Cayla had taken her mother's yacht for a cruise with Rogier, a guy she'd picked up. A huge mistake: Rogier, a member of a Somali bandit clan, sneaks his pirate buddies onboard the vessel. Cayla is taken hostage, but not before she leaves her mummy a text message.

Because of her spoilt little girl's carelessness and the complicated politics of the day, Hazel has to beg Cross, the "arrogant" and "awful know-it-all", to mount a covert rescue operation and bring her daughter home. Cross succeeds, but that's only half the tale. Is Cayla really the baddies' target, or is there something else afoot?

Though the storytelling is crisp and the plot tightly woven, the pace is hurried in many parts, probably to keep the reader from noticing the strange, unbelievable situations and gaps in logic. For one, the good guys somehow manage to find time for witty banter under the stresses of hostage rescues, black ops, and possible death.

While planning Cayla's rescue mission, Hazel and Cross even manage to find time for chess, a fancy dinner, skinny-dipping and a bit of you-know-lah, nudge, wink, nudge. At one point in the middle of a mission, Hazel even approves of her lethal, highly trained body-double's taste in lingerie.

Parts of this novel take place in the lawless territories of Somalia, so we know who the antagonists are. Still, Smith makes damned sure we know, with devices such as bad-guy names (Rogier is really Adam Abdul Tippoo Tip), bad-guy habits (the violent, misogynistic head of the Tippoo Tip family hunts people like how they hunt foxes) and bad-guy talk ("My name is Anwar (Tippoo Tip). Remember it, Cross, you pig of the great pig.").

Some of these presumably crass, unwashed brigands sound like they took acting classes at some British drama academy; at times, I thought I was reading a River God sequel.

Okay, fine. Cross and some of his friends aren't much better. They're a tad racist, potty-mouthed and have generally bad manners, but by the end of the sentence where they're introduced you'll be friends with them, too. Nobody will miss the bad guys when they get killed.

Some parts are uncomfortable to read. Cayla's sexual enslavement and scenes of radical Sharia punishments at a village square in Puntland, for instance, are unnecessarily graphic and appear gratuitously added for weight. And what's with the cameo by royal gaffe-machine Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh?

Smith reputedly has a knack for melding history, geography and a dash of Mills & Boon into his tales. Those in Peril, however, also includes an incredible plot, two-dimensional characters, sparse and rushed storytelling and a sanguine ending — fast-paced, intellectually lightweight, straightforward fun for anyone (not just airport-goers) with some time to kill.

Those in Peril
Wilbur Smith
MacMillan (2011)
386 pages
ISBN: 978-0-230-52927-4


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