PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am

by Wilbur Smith

With her rounded bosom and the curves of a Grecian vase, the heroine's cheeks blush delicately as she notices the hero's eyes alight upon her. She will be beautiful and enigmatic. She will be exquisitely fragile yet must have a steely nerve and a love of running naked and frolicking in pools in the East African wilderness.

She will be initially elusive, mysterious, stand-offish, confusing our man's man hero who knows how to shoot elephants and those belligerent Nandi natives all in the name of duty to the British crown ... but who is totally mystified by feminine wiles.

And so Barbara Cartland meets the great white hunter in the fast-paced Assegai, Wilbur Smith's latest offering.

The tale begins in 1913 as the British build a railway across East Africa; our young hero Leon Courtney is a South African in the British Army. He later leaves the forces to begin his own safari company, where he takes hunters on tour. But in fact this is a cover.

Leon is working for his uncle and the Brits and has been told to escort baddie bosch German industrialist Count Otto von Meerbach - while checking what dastardly deeds he has planned.

However, the count has an alluring mistress called Eva who is not all she seems and Leon falls desperately in love with her.

As the kaiser brings out the cannons, so the fight is brought to Africa and Leon not only battles to save his love but tries to keep his eye on the ball and conquer the kaiser at the same time. Cue plenty of battles, animals being killed and disappointingly brief sex scenes.

I'm not exactly sure what Smith's recipe is to ensure that the reader turns the pages. Some have described him as a master storyteller and certainly among his 32 books to date, various titles in his Egyptian series and early South African novels, including When the Lion Feeds, stand out.

But his characters in Assegai are a little cardboard cutout and the plot is somewhat predictable. His physical descriptions of women are tired and the dialogue in places laughable. The romance scenes are twee.

A South African friend told me that under the repressive apartheid system, When the Lion Feeds was the most well-thumbed read at his boys' boarding school in the mid-1970s in Durban - because of its sex scenes. I can see why curious 12-year-old boys would enjoy them but I'm not sure that Smith makes the sex work for the adult reader.

Smith's descriptions of the African landscape show his love for where he has spent most of his life, although he now resides in London. He writes about what he enjoys, which shines through, and the history is interesting and educational. Some of the violence is grotesque and Smith does not shy away from making it real.

I have read better Smiths, but this eclipses his previous effort, the disappointing The Quest.