The Sunbird

A Novel by Wilbur Smith

..'The Sunbird' is the second most loved novel, behind 'River God', ever written according to the responses I receive from my visitors. Many of you who have read 'The Sunbird' would disagree with the above order. I personally think they are both outstanding novels, although both books are so similar, I have trouble choosing a favorite.

..When you compare 'River God' and 'The Seventh Scroll' to 'The Sunbird' a striking resemblance is immediately noticeable. Both stories are about the modern day search for and recovery of lost ancient treasure as well as an account detailing the people who accumulated that treasure and their lifestyles. Both have a crippled main character who affects their country with the king's ear and intelligence well beyond that of other citizens. Both stories are told at the time when each civilization is threatened with its ultimate extinction. There are many other similarities. Let's just say "If you loved 'River God', you will love 'The Sunbird'." I've got a review to do here, so let me get to it.

..This novel is about the modern day search for and discovery of an ancient Mediterranean civilization that was uprooted into Africa's interior by the ruthless Roman Empire. In Africa these Phoenician settlers thrived finding game, gold, and glory everywhere they turned. Of course, the native population wasn't very happy about these intruders whose love of war and slavery kept a fire of hate deep within each savage.

..The story starts in our modern world as one man's dream becomes a reality. Ben is an archeologist whose theories about Mediterranean influence in Africa have become the main objects of ridicule among his colleagues. Ben is adamant about his theory though and receives a break when his long time friend and main financial backer shows him a satellite photo of what appears to be an ancient stone city in Africa. The only problem is, when Ben and his beautiful assistant, Sally, arrive on the scene, the city is nowhere to be found.

..'The growth of vegetation at the crest of the hills was dense and spiny. I was glad of the machete I had with me, and I hacked a path for us through it. We had marked the approximate position of the hole from the plain below , but even then we blundered around in the undergrowth for two hours before I nearly walked into it.'

..'Suddenly the earth opened at my feet in that frightening black shaft, and I threw myself backwards, nearly knocking Sally down.'

.."That was a near one." I was shaken, and I kept a respectful distance from the edge as we worked our way around to where a slab of stone jutted squarely out into the void.'

..I knelt on the lip to examine the stone. Far below, the surface of the emerald pool glowed in the gloomy depths. I do not like exposed heights, and I felt distinctly queesy as I leaned out to touch the flat surface of the stone.'

.."It is certainly regular, Sal," I ran my hands over it. "But I can't feel any chisel marks. It's been badly weathered though, perhaps-"

..'I looked up and froze with horror. Sally had walked out onto the stone platform as though it were a diving board. She stood now with her toes over the edge, and as I watched in horror she lifted her hands above her head. She pointed them straight at the sky with all of her fingers and both thumbs extended stiffly in that same gesture when first she saw the emerald pool.'

.."Sally!" I screamed, and her head jerked. She swayed slightly. I scrambled to my knees.'

.."Don't, Sally, don't!" I screamed again, for I knew she was about to plunge into the hungry stone mouth. Slowly she leaned out over the gap. I ran out onto the stone platform and as she went forward beyond the point of balance my hand closed on her upper arm. For brief seconds we teetered and struggled together on the lip of stone, then I dragged her back and pulled her to safety.'

..'Suddenly she was shaking and weeping hysterically, and I clung to her, for I was also badly scared. Something had happened that was beyond my understanding, something mystical and deeply disturbing.'

..'When Sally's sobs had abated, I asked her gently, "What happened, Sal? Why did you do it? "

.."I don't know. I just felt dizzy, and there was a black roaring in my head, and - oh, I don't know, Ben. I just don't know."

..'It was another twenty minutes before Sally seemed sufficiently recovered to begin the journey back to camp, and by then the sun was setting. Before we reached the path down the cliff face it was completely dark.'

.."the moon will be up in a few minutes, Sal. I don't fancy going down the cliff in the dark. Let's wait for it."

..'We sat on the edge of the cliff huddled together, not for warmth, for the air was still hot and the rocks were sun-baked, but because both of us were still a little shaken from the experience we had just come through. The moon was a big silver glow beneath the horizon, then it pushed up fat and yellow and round above the trees, and washed the land with a pale light.'

..'I looked at Sally. Her face was silver-gray in the moonlight with dark bruised eyes, and her expression was remote and infinitely sad.'

.."Shall we go, Sal?" I hugged her lightly.'

.."In a minute. It's so beautiful." I turned to stare out over the moon-silver plain. Africa has many moods, many faces, and I love them all. Here before us, she put on one of her more enchanting displays. We were silent and engrossed for a long time.'

..'Suddenly I felt Sally stir against me, half rising.'

.."Ready?" I asked her.'

.."Ben!" Her hand closed on my wrist with surprising strength, she was shaking my arm'

.."What is it, Sal?" I was seized with dread that her earlier mood had returned.'

.."Look, Ben. Look!" Her voice was choked with emotion.'

.."What is it, Sal? Are you all right?"

..'With one hand she was shaking my arm, with the other she was pointing down at the plain below us.'

.."Look, Ben, there it is!" (Pages 84-86)

..After months of searching, Ben and Sally stumble onto the moon-city by sheer chance, and the excavation that follows produces many extraordinary finds. Beads, jewelry, spear-heads and gold, but none more important than the history of the lost city inscribed by an intelligent priest almost two thousand years earlier.

..The poet who recorded the city's rich history is named Huy. He is the high priest serving under a king he loves and worships named Lannon. Together they shape their world and the world of all around them. Lannon appreciates the rich land and it's many gifts to his people, and utilizes his surroundings to their fullest extent. He mines the rich golden reefs using slaves taken from the native population, he trades with wandering tribes for diamonds they find in their journeys, and hunts the land for meat to feed his people.

..'From the earth at the feet of the advancing wall of living things rose the line of archers. They loosed four times before the wall swept over them. Four thousand arrows in twenty seconds and those that followed fell over the wind-rows of dead animals, screaming with the agony of broken bone and arrow impaled flesh.'

..'Bourne by the weight of their own forward momentum the masses of game pressed onward while flight after flight of arrows decimated their ranks, and the corpses and wounded piled in ridges and huge mounds.'

..'The smaller game were wiped out by the archers, but the larger thick-skinned came through with the arrows bristling in their flanks. Great gray rhinoceros, lumbering wildly toward the line of nets, tossing their long curved nose horns. Giraffe galloping long-legged and terror-driven. A squadron of black buffalo running in a mass, shoulder to shoulder like a team in span.'

..'They came into the nets, and fell struggling and screaming. The javelins whipped into them as they rolled and roared, smothered in the folds of heavy netting. Desperately Lannon and his men worked to clear the dead form the netting and reset the poles, but it was effort wasted. There were too many of them now, and their was death out there in the open beyond the security of the pits. Arrow-maddened, the wounded game charged any man who showed himself.'

..'Huy saw a soldier tossed by an angry rhinoceros. He cartwheeled in the air, and fell on the hard earth to be kicked and trampled to a muddy pulp in the dust by the hordes that followed.'

..'From the pit now Lannon hurled his javelins with an uncanny accuracy and power, aiming each bolt for the soft ribs behind the shoulder of the passing game. He piled the bodies about the pit, shouting and laughing in the frenzied excitement of the hunt.'

..'Huy was also infected by it. He danced and shouted and waved his axe, guarding Lannon's back and flank, hurling a javelin when some huge animal seemed about to crash into the pit on top of them.'

..'Both he and Lannon were soaked with their own sweat and caked with the swirling dust; a stone flung by a dashing hoof had cut Huy's forehead open to the bone of the skull and he ripped the hem of his tunic and bound the wound quickly, hardly interrupting the dance of excitement.'

..'In front of them the archers had been overwhelmed by the sheer weight of animal flesh. With their arrows exhausted they cowered in their pits and let the solid ranks pour over them.'

..'Huy saw the fresh ranks pouring down on them and he grabbed his blood-crazed king and dragged him struggling to the floor of the pit, and they lay with their heads covered by their arms while the edges of the pit crumbled in on top of them under the impact of the hooves. Earth smothered them and they covered their faces with the hems of their tunics and gasped for breath.'

..'A young zebra stallion fell into the pit on top of them, kicking and neighing in terror, with it's powerful yellow teeth snapping indiscriminately; it was a deadly danger.'

..'Huy rolled away from it's flying razor-sharp hooves. He paused a moment to aim and then shot his right arm upwards. The spiked head of the vulture axe lanced up under the terrified animal's jaw, entering the brain cleanly. It collapsed warm and shivering on top of them, and it's corpse was a protection from the storm of hooves that raged around them.'

..'The storm dwindled, passed over and rumbled away into the distance. In the quiet that followed, Huy rolled toward Lannon.'

.."Are you safe?" And Lannon crawled with difficulty from under the dead zebra. They dragged themselves from the pit and looked about them with wonder.'

..'Across a front of 500 paces, and to a depth of the same distance the ground was covered by a thick carpet of dead and dying game. From their pits amongst this terrible carnage the archers and javelin-throwers climbed and stood staring with the dazed air of drunken men.'

..'The line of beaters seemed to wade toward them out of a swamp of hanging dust, even the sky was dulled with the dust, and the pitiful cries and the bleating of the dying and wounded animals shamed the silence.'

..'The beaters came forward in lines through the fields of bleeding flesh and their swords rose and fell as they killed the wounded. Huy reached under his tunic and brought out a leather flask of Zeng wine.'

.."I can always trust you for comfort," Lannon grinned, and drank greedily. The wine drops shone like blood in his dusty beard.'

.."Was there ever a hunt like that?" He asked as he handed the flask to Huy.'

..'Huy drank and then looked about him at the field. "I cannot believe there ever was," he said softly.'

.."We will smoke and dry this kill - and then hunt again," Lannon promised and strode away to order the butchery.' (Pages 320-322)

..Huy and Lannon eventually end up in a fight to the death for this land that they love against the native population that is only looking for one thing - the complete and utter annihilation of this foreign civilization that has destroyed their spirit and their land.

'The Sunbird' Smith, Wilbur. Published by Pan Books, Ltd. Great Britain, 1974.