Book Reviews

Review Rating

With the October 2004 review, we began rating the books on the basis of one to four trowels; 
one trowel= don’t bother, to four trowels= run right out to your local book store and buy the hard cover!

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The Sunbird by Wilbur Smith

Reviewed on: April 1, 2024


2018 (PB)
First published in Great Britain in 1972

Born in Central Africa in 1933, Wilbur Smith has been a prolific author since his 1964 best seller, When the Lion Feeds, and down to the present day.  Most of his novels are firmly grounded in the lore, legend and history of his beloved Africa, and The Sunbird spans the epoch from before the time of Christ to the near present day.

The novel opens in contemporary times as Dr. Ben Kazin, director of the Institute of African Anthropology and Prehistory in Johannesburg, reports to his boss, industrialist and financial tycoon Louren Sturvesant (and financial angel of the Institute) that recently acquired aerial photographs strongly hint of extensive ruins in Botswana.  Sturvesant agrees to fly with Ben and his lovely assistant and specialist in rock art and ancient writing, Dr. Sally Benator (with whom Ben is hopelessly in love) into the wild back country to investigate further.  Ben also wishes to include Timothy Mageba, the Institute’s expert on African languages and folklore, in the reconnoiter but Timothy demurs, warning of an imminent and ancient evil at the site.

Their initial investigations prove to be somewhat underwhelming as Ben maintains that the ruins may be last vestiges of the legendary lost city of Makarikari settled by Phoenician or Carthaginian colonizers centuries before Christ, while the more prosaic Louren argues for later indigenous colonizers.  Meanwhile the native crew grows uneasy about the area, called katuba ngazi—the Hills of Blood.  When Louren returns to civilization to attend to his various business interests, Ben and Sally remain behind to search the area more extensively—Ben is convinced that there is more than the paltry evidence they have found on their hasty initial investigation.  Their persistence pays off when they discover a massive hidden cavern with wonderful examples of Bushman rock art.  But even more stunning are the depictions of figures and buildings stretching back perhaps two thousand years, including a larger than life “white king”—Phoenician or even earlier—beneath the more recent Bushman art. 

Louren Sturvesant’s interest is reignited, and his considerable wealth allows for a full-scale excavation with the full cooperation of the Botswana government.  An additional husband and wife archaeological team are brought in, along with more than forty African laborers who are not familiar with the local legends and curses.  The excavations continue under duress as African guerillas, led by a familiar figure from the Institute, endanger the excavation.  But Ben, Sally and company persist and finally, utilizing both advanced technology and old-fashioned dirt archaeology methods, break through to hidden caverns that contain thousands of ceramic pots containing leather scrolls covered in Punic writing, as well as dozens of mummified bodies, all of which shows signs of meeting a violent end.  An Oxford don and renowned linguistic expert is brought in to translate the scrolls.  While most of the scrolls provide an unembellished economic history of Opet-- the name of the lost ancient city-state-- other scrolls of rolled sheets of pure gold recorded the writings of a poet-historian who told of Rome’s defeat of Carthage and the remnant population retreating to deeper into Africa.  In haunting fashion, the history of this ancient city and its ultimate annihilation at the hands of indigenous enemies foreshadows the violence and political upheavals that will beset much of 20th Century Africa.

Wilbur Smith is a master storyteller, and, in The Sunbird, he is able to encapsulate the sweep of African history and at the same time engage the reader in the lives—sometimes tragic, sometimes exhilarating—of his fictional characters.  Four trowels for The Sunbird.

Twenty Years in the Trenches: Archaeology in Fiction

William Gresens, longtime MVAC supporter and volunteer, has been writing reviews of archaeological fiction as MVAC’s book reviewer for twenty years.  In this interview Bill shares how he got started writing reviews for MVAC, how the genre has changed, highlights, and his thoughts looking forward. 

Bill Gresen’s Book Review 20th Anniversary

While Bill's reviews go back 20 years now, his relationship with MVAC goes back more than twice that long! The reviews capture some of the things we enjoy most about Bill-- he's perceptive, methodical, a clear thinker, and a whole lot of fun! We look forward to this relationship--and Bill's reviews!--continuing for many years to come.

The March 2021 review marks the 20th anniversary of reviews of archaeological fiction.  It has been my pleasure and great fun to while away the hours reading these books—for the most part, at least—and writing the reviews!  My thanks to MVAC allowing me to prattle on and I look forward to the years ahead.

Bill Gresens