cover image The Sword and the Spear

The Sword and the Spear

Mia Couto, trans. from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-25689-0

The modest second entry in Couto’s Sands of the Emperor trilogy (after Woman of the Ashes) picks up with the Portuguese Sgt. Germano de Melo nursing severely injured hands in late 1890s Mozambique. Germano boats up the River Inharrime with his VaChopi translator and love, the teenage Imani, and others in search of medical assistance. Stopping to rest in Sana Benene, they’re welcomed by a priest and his miracle worker partner, who mends Germano while the Gaza Empire battles Portuguese soldiers for control of neighboring lands. Members of both warring parties visit Sana Benene, including the Portuguese Capt. Santiago Mata, who carts off a healed Germano from the group, which breaks up once Imani, carrying out her father’s plan, agrees to infiltrate Gaza to marry and murder Emperor Ngungunyane, thus ending the war. As in Couto’s earlier novel, knowledge of Mozambique’s history helps one appreciate the plot nuances, while much of the narrative works to set the table for the concluding volume, particularly as Couto’s isolated characters barrel toward each other near the novel’s climax. Though the prose occasionally veers into histrionic (“This river up which we were traveling crossed territories of fire, riven by hunger and blood”), Couto’s protagonists remain consistently fascinating. Readers of the first installment will appreciate this. (Sept.)