King of Kings (The Courtneys & Ballantynes)

Written by Imogen Robertson Wilbur Smith
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1887 Cairo, Egypt, sixteen-year-old Amber Benbrook and her fiancé, Major Penrod Ballantyne, are enjoying an idyllic life. Following the earlier Siege of Khartoum, Penrod and a trader, Ryder Courtney, had rescued Amber and her twin sister, Saffron, from Sudan. However, Amber and Penrod’s bond is destroyed by the jealous Lady Agatha. She informs Amber about secrets from Penrod’s past. When Saffron and Ryder sail for Abyssinia to start a new silver mining venture, the heartbroken Amber decides to join them. While they suffer losses during the voyage, they stand a chance of losing everything to Menelik II, the King of Kings.

Meanwhile in Cairo, following a confrontation with a British aristocrat, the distraught Penrod seeks solace in opium dens, but recovers, and through an old friend is offered an opportunity to advise the Italian military in Eritrea. The British also want him to spy for them. Penrod agrees, wishing to get closer to Amber, but the region’s complex conflicts get in their way.

In this sequel to his novel The Triumph of the Sun, Wilbur Smith and Imogen Robertson continue the Ballantyne and Courtney families’ saga in North Africa. Two romantic storylines masterfully interweave with the multifaceted political turmoil of that era. The struggles for power among tribal Abyssinians, the Italians in Eritrea, and the Mahdis in South Sudan, as well as the attempted sabotage of Courtney’s project by a disgruntled Brit, are aptly presented. While the men, Penrod and Ryder, play a prominent role striving towards their objectives, the women, Amber and Saffron, also participate actively in their quests. The authors’ subtle choice to name one sister Saffron is sure to add interest in the series, for we have already met her descendant, Saffron Courtney, in subsequent novels set during WWII (Courtney’s War). The appealing introduction of a pet lion cub character adds some mirth into the novel’s frequently violent action scenes.