cover image River God

River God

Wilbur Smith. St Martin's Press, $24.95 (530pp) ISBN 978-0-312-10612-6

A bestselling writer in England but not as yet well-known here, Smith ( Elephant Song ) may attract a wider audience with this compulsively readable historical novel based on the little-known facts behind the Hyksos invasion of Egypt, circa 1780 B.C. Containing all the standard elements of great adventure--intrigue, romance, greed, cruelty and furious action--the yarn is spun by the clever eunuch Taita, who reports on events with an irony akin to a 20th-century sensibility. Taita is the slave of Egypt's scheming Grand Vizier Lord Intef, whose daughter Lostris is in love with Tanus, a young army officer whose father's demise was brought about by Intef's greed. Knowing of his daughter's love, Intef devises a plan for her to become the bride of Pharaoh Mamose. These maneuvers set the stage for the story of two warring Nile kingdoms, the arrival of the Hyksos and the ultimate exodus of the Egyptian court, now ruled by Queen Lostris. Taita is a curious creation. We know that he is clever and wise, but we don't know how he became so learned or what his country of origin is. The brilliant slave invented a system for calculating the rise and ebb of the Nile, is extremely knowledgeable in the ways of healing, improves upon the wheel and trains horses (both of which were brought to Egypt by the invading Hyksos). He is also clever enough to manipulate the Pharaoh into believing that he is the father of Prince Regent Memnon, the offspring of a forbidden tryst between Lostris and Tanus. Somehow, this doesn't ring true. At times the prose is curiously flat and juvenile (it could be Everyday Life In Ancient Egypt), but the events covered in this narrative have enough intrinsic interest to sustain the reader through to the rewarding and satisfying conclusion. An author's afterword claims that this is a rewritten version of scrolls discovered in a tomb newly opened in 1988. 150,000 first printing; $150,000 ad/promo. (Mar.)