My first glance at the cover art for The Hinterlands suggested that I was in for a humorous reading experience: there is a map of Africa, surrounded by a leopard print border, and a man stands in the foreground, wearing traditional African garb plus a wide-brimmed hat. It seemed a bit like Indiana Jones meets Romancing the Stone. The comparison is not far off: this is a story of adventure and romance, with dashing yet unschooled (and occasionally roguish) legendary leopard hunter Brendan Donivan as its hero and intrepid American anthropologist Elle Bowie (who is more than she seems) as its heroine. Their story takes place during a tumultuous time. In 1897, British colonial expansion in the Niger Coast Protectorate was underway. Kingdoms such as Benin were coveted for their palm oil and other commodities, but establishing trade occasionally required force. The British “Punitive Expedition” against Benin is not well known today, but it is during the year leading up to this event that Brendan and Elle come to know each other. Brendan is brave and dashing, one of the few outsiders to have traded with the ancient kingdom of Benin. Elle is feisty, brazen, and determined not to fall for another good-for-nothing man. Will she overcome her reluctance to rely on Brendan? Will Brendan accept who she really is? Will the impending fight between the British and the Benin warriors separate them?
It is during the scenes leading up to the actual arrival of British forces that this story gains momentum and tension. Mercury’s research is thorough, and it was refreshing to read about this lesser-known chapter of history. The writing style is occasionally awkward, particularly during the many intimate encounters between Brendan and Elle. (This reader had a hard time not giggling over one too many references to mushy honeypots.) Best enjoyed with tongue planted firmly in cheek.