Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Microreview [book]: Desert God, by Wilbur Smith


 Obviously Stephen King has only ever read a single historical novelist...

Smith, Wilbur. Desert God. William Morris: 2014.
Don't buy it, but if you must, do it here.

Ever been tempted to write a series about a smug, all-knowing Renaissance Man? Don't. Just...don't. I can't think of many less appealing topics, but the indomitable octogenarian Wilbur Smith doesn't seem capable of letting his demigod-like Taita go quietly into the night. In Desert God, the world's least appealing polymath is up to his usual laughably improbable tricks, and it's worse than ever.

I honestly can't remember the last time I started reading a book but gave up due to lack of interest (or indeed for any other reason!) before the end. But then I encountered Wilbur Smith's books, and I've now gone 2/2. I want you all to know that I invested tremendous effort in my multiple attempts to read this entire book, and even went back and took a look at the first book in the series, River God, to see whether Smith used to be great but has just fallen on hard times (the answer to that is a resounding 'no'), but no matter how many times I gritted my teeth and tried to just power through it, subconsciously my mind kept leaping at the slightest distraction to get me doing something, anything, else. This deadly one-two combination of River God and Desert God temporarily drained the act of reading itself from all its joy, sucking the life out of every word.

Reading either of these books is like sawing off your own arm: possible, with a supreme effort of will, but be prepared to faint out of horror and disgust countless times in the process.
How you'll look if you keep reading Desert God.

What is so bad about Desert God, you might be wondering? The answer? Everything. The writing is contrived and terrible, the characters shockingly uninteresting and entirely undeveloped (Smith uses his characters like a diarrhetic uses toilet paper), and the 'historicity' of the ridiculous plot makes me quiver with rage. 16th century BC Egyptians using "cavalry lances" to run down Bedouin bandits they've cornered after following their tracks—in the friggin' desert?!? (Caveat emptor: there are dozens more anachronisms and willful falsifications in this "well-researched" book.) The good guys get to run down 'the natives' and teach them what for...I guess 'Egyptian-colored' skin is the new white!

And the utterly charisma-less character of Taita was a terrible idea, even for an author like Smith. Taita can do everything better than anyone else in the history of mankind, speaks all languages in the world or can learn any new ones in five minutes, he's like a billion years old but still agelessly beautiful, can apparently call in Horus/other supernatural forces at will (i.e., a deus ex machina whenever the plot demands), histrionically claims in the first-person narration that he's humble and would never boast and yet goes on and on about how wonderful/clever/etc. he is on practically every page, and is supposedly smarter than everyone else in the universe, but when the plot demands, he makes the most jaw-droppingly terrible decisions imaginable. This poop-fest is as bad as (check that: even worse than) Orientalist drivel like Shogun or other Clavell novels!

And speaking of Orientalism and Clavell, Smith, it seems, is another card-carrying Orientalist dreaming longingly of the halcyon days when the "civilized" (=white) people man bestrode the world like a colossus. But wait! How can that be, since this is ostensibly an 'Egyptian' story? Yeah—it isn't. For all you wondering if the subaltern can ever really speak/get out from under the thumb of their former colonial oppressors, all I can say is, if Smith is writing for you, not bloody likely! This entire "Egyptian" story has the cloying stink of European high medieval fantasy epic all over it. People freakin' bowing, spouting chivalric nonsense all over the place--at least Smith should have had the decency to set this tale where it belongs, in medieval Europe, and not slapped the highly suspect fig leaf of 'ancient Egypt' over it! Worst of all, the millions (that's right, millions) of people who read this nonsense come away thinking, "Now I know all about Ancient Egypt! Golly, what a romantic time it was—never a dull moment, what?" This is all enough to make me want to cry. Of course, negative reviews can't affect either Smith himself or his gazillions of fans, meaning that book sales won't suffer because of my visceral dislike. (I dislike this book so hard I was clenching my teeth like nobody's business while reading it, and by the time I gave up, I needed the psychological equivalent of the Jaws of Life just to pry the splintered ruin of my teeth apart.)

So in conclusion, if you've never read any of Wilbur Smith's Ancient Egypt train-wreck of a series, congratulations. You dodged an elephant-sized bullet. And if you just love Wilbur Smith and can't understand how I could be so mean and isn't Taita just so wonderful after all, please consult the following checklist: are you a 1) white? 2) man? Since you answered yes to both 1) and 2), quod erat demonstrandum. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, just go straight to jail—I hope all they give you to read there is Desert God :)

The Math:

Objective assessment: 3/10

Bonuses: +1 for the off-chance that the second half of the book is better than the abysmal first

Penalties: -1 for awful writing, -1 for awful characters, and -1 for an astonishingly awful story

Nerd coefficient: 1/10 "Yowsers—run for the hills!"

[NB on scoring: we give out 1/10 very sparingly on this site, which should demonstrate yet again the level of stinkitude here.]

This has been a public service announcement warning you of the unprecedented toxicity of Wilbur Smith's Desert God, brought to you by Zhaoyun, protecting humankind from the forces of darkness (and bad taste!) here on Nerds of a Feather since 2013.