Sunday, 23 September 2012

Those in Peril - oh dear

Those in Peril (Macmillan: 2011) An African adventure from the world’s biggest selling writer of African adventures. Somali pirates play the bad guy role as they kidnap the daughter of Hazel Bannock, the heir to an oil magnate’s millions and a feisty businesswoman in her own right. Cue the rescue attempt, led by Hector Cross, every inch the hard nosed/soft hearted American hero you expect him to be.
A few weeks ago, I accused Chad Harbach’s novel of being like a soap opera.
I take it all back. Those words of mine, I take them back. I scurry after them and claw them and scrape them and squeeze them back into the toothpaste tube from which they spurted.
It take it back because I have found something more soap opera-y. And I hate to say it, but it was a Wilbur Smith.
Which is a shame. Because I enjoyed hearing him speak at Edinburgh. I picked up his latest with hope and expectation. I read some Wilbur Smith when I was young and I enjoyed them. All adventure, buckles being swashed left and right.
But one of three things has happened. Either I’m looking at those books through rose tinted glasses. Or my tastes have changed from when I was ten (which is very possible). Or Wilbur Smith has got worse at writing. Because this was bad. This was trip-towards-the-end-skipping-a-few-pages-where-possible bad.
I need to show some restraint here. I know some of you like this guy. I like this guy. But this was bad. And I should at least tell you why.
Worst was the relationships between the characters - they were sickening. Every few pages had a “I hate you. Kiss me” moment, straight out of the worst Spanish soap opera. I can get on board with people not getting on and then slowly falling for each other. But this had zero subtelty. None. Not an ounce. It just screamed at you, over and over again. I wanted to scream back.
There was also spades of gut wrenchingly awkward humour, only allowable amongst the deepest, most sympathetic of characters. Which none of these people were. They were either very two dimensional, or oscillated confusingly between extremes - one minute brave the next cowardly, one minute strong the next weak, one minute focussed the next having it off in the back of an aeroplane.
Then there’s the good v evil bit. This is a book with well defined good guys and bad guys. Which would be alright, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was trying to relate a real world environment. There were clumsy (very clumsy) attempts at explaining that not all Arabs are bad. That not all Americans are good. But these attempts drown. They stick out as consciously inserted disclaimers before the narrative goes off and does what it wants, human complexity be damned.
The only redeeming factor I can think of comes with an inbuilt failure. The plot was detailed, with a hurried pace maintained throughout. There was adventure, no doubt. It was the only thing stopping me giving up entirely - the action was relentless and it was difficult to find a break to stop in. But it was fatally flawed. The simplicity of the characters, the black and white nature of the story - it added up to a pretty obvious conclusion. I knew what the end game was from about page ten. Heck, you could read the dust jacket and construct the rest of the story yourself. Wind through the scenes as the plot did, there were very few surprises. And where a twist was attempted, it was usually telegraphed about fifty pages beforehand.
I’m not being a snob. I know it can sound like it, but I am 100% Scout’s Honour not being a snob. I guarantee your eyes would roll out of their sockets if you read this as well. The subtle-as-a-sledgehammer love story. The painfully awkward character interplay. The nails-on-a-blackboard dialogue. It was just no fun at all. Not one bit.
Gah. In two years of doing this, I’m not sure I’ve read a book less worthy of diplomacy. I usually try and find an upside. Even Chad Harbach got 4 GBR. I try to at least give credit for an author’s intentions. But I can’t here. Intention and execution were both terrible.
I hate to do this, but…

I’m so sorry. It’s not fun saying bad things. I rarely do it. But there’s an entire world of things to read. Good things. So I’d feel bad if you picked this up because of something I said. Don’t. Don’t pick it up.
Next week, something more positive. I promise.


Anonymous said...

My good god. That was harsh.

I would not be surprised if you have made Wilbur Smith cry. I hope you're happy.


Gav Collins said...

I know. I feel bad. Never been so negative before. But it was terrible. Also, Wilbur Smith owns an island in the Indian Ocean, a chalet in the Swiss Alps, has a wife 30-odd years his junior, and has millions of fans. I'm betting he doesn't care about his GBR score.

Unknown said...

Well that solves a dilemma! I will read 50 Shades of Grey instead!


Anonymous said...

Mmmmm! So disapointed! I am a dye hard fan of wilbur smith, as well you know Mr Collins! Was shocked to see this review. I have since read a few chapters and feel I must agree, I have no heart to read on. I only hope that Mr Smith was having a few off days! Look forward to his next book! Perhaps I have just grown out of them, I read his first books when I was in my early twenties, 30 years on, my tastes may have changed. Still sad though. M