River God by Wilbur Smith
Published in 1993
Genre: Historical fiction
“The river lay heavily upon the desert, bright as a spill of molten metal from a furnace.”
As the title and first line suggest, River God, by Wilbur Smith, is centered around the life giving force of the Nile in ancient Egypt. What the book concerns, however, is the lives of those who subsist and thrive along that great running serpent of water. Violence, betrayal, intrigue, and love all take the stage in an epic that is as fulfilling as it is enticing.
River God follows the life of Taita, a eunuch slave who serves the youthful beauty Lostris. She is the daughter of Lord Inef, a terrifying and powerful noble who owns Taita. Lostris is friends with Tanus, a man who is older than the 14 year old girl and was raised by Taita after his father died. Tanus and Lostris fall in love and wish to marry, but neither know that Lord Inef actually hates Tanus and had a hand in his father’s death. They beseech Taita to ask for her father’s blessing, which ends with him being flogged by Lord Inef’s thug, Rasfer.
After a ceremony honoring the god Osiris, Lostris is forced to marry the Pharaoh and Tanus is tasked with ridding Egypt of bandits within two years or else he will be executed (under Lord Inef’s instruction). Taita tries to reunite the young lovers and as Lostris spends time as a wife of the king, she and Taita enter the Pharaoh’s trust and gain influence through Taita’s many talents as a healer, entertainer, and prophet/astrologer. The remainder of the story, which I will not spoil here, takes the three characters hundreds of miles and scores of years into their futures which hold both triumphs and trials.
River God should be lauded for its in-depth descriptions of Egyptian life and how it weaves them into an epic story concerning love and the human condition. The story and characters all start out a bit stereotypical, especially with the trope of lovers who cannot be together, but they grow by the end of the book. Since he is the narrator, Taita often takes center stage and as such must come under scrutiny from the reader. He is arrogant to the point of annoyance at times because he is very good at a lot of things and he knows it. Taita is kind of like Forrest Gump in that he is present at a lot of world-changing events (discovering the wheel, building bleachers, the re-curve bow); Taita, however, ascribes a lot of the genius inventions of the age to himself and in this, and a myriad of other ways, he is easily distinguished from the runner from Greenbow, Alabama.
River God is told from the first person point of view which makes it harder for me to suspend my disbelief. I fully acknowledge that this is a personal qualm, and one that probably doesn’t affect many readers, but I just have a hard time identifying in the first person when reading a book. River God is bursting with mature subject matter; sex, graphic violence, pedophilia, and genital mutilation are all described in visceral terms, though I wouldn’t say it is to the point of gratuity. Much of the violence comes in the form of hunting and killing animals for survival and sport. Oryx, horses, wildebeest, elephants, and hippos are all dispatched in gruesome detail in addition to descriptions of pitched battles between the Egyptians and their foes.
I was a bit thrown off by the author’s note at the end which says that the book is based on ten scrolls that were found in real life; I highly doubt it and if it is false, I feel like it shouldn’t have been included because it undermines much of the tale. I enjoyed the story and became invested in the characters, but there wasn’t much to make it stand out for me. I suppose there were people who saw the change of history, but it just seemed like there were so many paradigm shifts in this book that it became arduous by the end. Taita’s ability to be great at everything also was a thorn in my side; he was pretty much a deus ex machina throughout, but I think it is important to remember the role of an unreliable narrator. I did have a good time and look forward to reading the next book (mainly because I accidentally bought it first before learning it was part of a series), but I will definitely go into it with some reservations.
Verdict: 3 epic epochs of Egypt out of 5
Recommended for: Adults, those who are interested in historical fiction based in ancient Egypt, readers who like 1st person POV, those who enjoy epic stories that span decades, and fans of well-written prose.
Not recommended for: Children, people with weak stomachs, those who aren’t interested in historical fiction based in ancient Egypt, Lord Inef, Rasfer, readers who dislike 1st person POV, or those who enjoy reliable narrators.