Sunday, March 2, 2014

Book Review: Only the Dead

In Only the Dead, author Hamilton Wende brings together his journalistic experience of covering war-torn zones, and his interest and research into ancient mythology in a compelling tale. The story has a number of threads running through it to create a fascinating tapestry. Again, as in his previous book House of War, Sebastian Burke reappears; this time he is invited to assist psychologist Tania Burke as she tries to help children traumatised by a war in Uganda, a terrifying army of children led by the megalomaniac General Faustin, assisted by his mysterious shaman figure, Papa Mephisto, and his blood-seeking machete Chonge. If this sounds like a weird mix, it is not. Child armies are a sad truth of Africa and the tragedy of these children ripped from their homes, forced to fight, brainwashed into mindless violence by a mesmerising and charismatic leader who fulfils the role of father figure in their lives is all too familiar to readers who have some idea of politics and war in Africa. Papa Mephisto introduces his benefactor General Faustin to the mysterious lion cult, claiming powers that would make the general and his young army invincible. Sebastian Burke’s interest in lion mythology weaves into this dark, tangled web of atavistic beliefs and fears. At the same time, Islamic terrorist activities and the American interest in protecting the USA and the world from a nuclear threat also underpins this tragic scenario.

Despite the horror of this bleak wasteland of the soul, faint glimmers of hope appear, namely in the main character of one of the child-soldiers, Okuto. He has suffered the same fate as his fellow soldiers, his parents perhaps killed, his village burned. Scarred emotionally and physically by his experiences, only the general and Papa Mephisto mean anything to him. That is, until Victoria, a fellow conscript makes an impact in his life. His love for Victoria is the only thing, ultimately, that has any meaning, and it is his redemption. Between these threads the reader will also learn about the Islamic terrorist, whose love for his daughter, killed accidently by a US drone attack meant for him, drives him to perpetrate a horrific vengeance. A sad but necessary character is the man who pushed the button, a man we don’t really get to know, but his tragic story resonates throughout the book. Love, loss of love, and redemption form a strong element here, and one that lifts the book out of a dark resignation. War is an inevitable part of human society, and the collateral damage is also inescapable. The pace of the book drives the reader on to keep turning pages. The author also intersperses references to the lion culture and myths and legend throughout in little tantalising snippets. There are subtle references that the keen-eyed reader will pick up and not so subtle ones, such as the story of Faust (General Faustin) and his pact with the devil (Papa Mephisto). The conclusion is open-ended, and one wonders if there will be more books. A great read from a talented author who manages to draw you into the hearts and souls of both the characters and the land they inhabit. Five Stars!

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