Book Review: Desert God
by Wilbur Smith
Wilbur Smith’s latest novel, Desert God, is the fifth adventure set in ancient Egypt featuring a core group of characters, foremost being Smith’s standout creation, the bragging, omni-capable super-eunuch Taita, who serves the Pharaoh Tamose and the royal princesses Bekatha and Tehuti. Taita is a basically unbelievable character and clearly intended to be so; he speaks of himself in positively Flashman-esque terms (only unlike Flashman, his estimates are often more or less justified), and Smith seems happy – happier in this book than in any previous one – to speak of him that way as well.
Desert God‘s single great deficiency as a novel is one it proudly displays: it’s far more of a “further adventures of” installment in the life and times of Taita than it is a discrete and tightly-plotted story. In order to confront the Hyskos invasion engulfing Tamose’s Egypt, Taita goes on a series of travels up the Nile to the coast and then across the sea in search of temporary allies. His quest allows Smith to do what he does best: provide a sequence of vivid set-pieces knitted together by some lively dialogue. Smith has done a good deal of research to inform his ancient Egypt novels, and in the manner of the most confident novelists, he’s then disregarded most of it in favor of delivering a rattling good yarn, and he populates that yarn with a wide array of characters, from his familiar actors to a wider cast that, in Desert God, includes some figures who’ll be familiar even to Sunday school students:
When King Nimrod rose from his throne of gold and ivory set on a white marble plinth inlaid with semiprecious stones, I saw that he towered over his tallest subjects. His shoulders were wide, his arms heavily muscled. When he raised his right hand and spread his bejeweled fingers in greeting I thought that his hand was probably large enough to envelop my head. He looked down on my two princesses with a lascivious sparkle in his dark eyes, and I could tell at once that he was not only a mighty hunter, but also a lecher of equivalent status.
Smith does provide a kind of climax in this novel, not only in terms of Taita’s work to defeat the Hyskos but also in terms of his gradual understanding of his own unique nature (there’s a revelation scene late in the book that will shock exactly none of Smith’s long-term readers), but the most memorable scenes are basically digressions, including one in which Taita, in an attempt to help a wounded friend, performs what must surely be the earliest abdominal surgery:
By the time I was satisfied that I had not overlooked any other damage that the blade had caused, both Tehuti and I were inured to the fecal stench. Nonetheless, it was a constant reminder to me how vital it was to wash out all the humors from his body before I closed his gaping stomach cavity. Anything that stinks so atrociously must be evil.
And what would be the protection against the rampant infection that would almost immediately kill the poor sufferer? Enterprising Taita has a solution:
Finally, we washed him out with our own urine. This is one of the most effective recipes against the humors, but the urine must be fresh and uncontaminated by any other fluid or bodily substance. Ideally it should come directly from a healthy bladder without contacting the external parts of the donor: the penis and foreskin of the male or the female labia.
Desert God leaves the stage open for many further adventures in this series, and that will make Wilbur Smith fans very happy. Readers looking to become Wilbur Smith fans – and Taita fans specifically – would perhaps be better served by going back to the first book in the series, River God, and starting there.