This sprawling adventure novel is set in the time when Victoria's plunderers, seeking gold, ivory and other treasure, carried the Union Jack into the interior of the Dark Continent. En route they crossed paths with American and Arab slavers who were plying their trade along the coast. Rich in the lore of that period and place, and instructive on the mores and attitudes that prevailed, the book is also great fun to read. The English are, as one of them proclaims, "the greatest and most civilized people in the world's history" and not to be compared with "these bloodthirsty savages." Nor is there much good to be said for the American opportunists who are hastening to make their fortunes before Abraham Lincoln can take office and spoil their iniquitous game. But it's hardly an antislavery tract; there is villainy on the English side as well, and enough bloodiness to go around.

What it is is rollicking entertainment, and if you approach the book too critically you may find that "Flight of the Falcon" will require a little adjustment before you get your sea legs. Let the first sentence be a tip-off: "Africa crouched low on the horizon, like a lion in ambush." A nice enough picture, but nicer had the editor deleted "low." Redundancies abound, but you get used to them, realizing that they supply rhythm and tone, if not necessarily meaning and precision, to the grandiloquent style of Wilbur Smith. And quite frequently, after weathering torrents of adjectives and adverbs, you will break out into redeeming passages that are poetic and precise. This, for example, describing an exotic phenomenon at the mouth of the Zambezi River:

"The muddy smell of the swamps carries far from the land when the wind is right, and the same wind carries strange insects with it. There is a tiny spider no bigger than the head of a wax vesta which lives in the papyrus banks of the delta. It spins a gossamer web on which it launches itself into the breeze in such numbers that gossamer fills the sky in clouds, like the smoke from a raging brush fire, rising many hundreds of feet and eddying and swirling in misty columns that are touched by the sunset into lovely shades of pink and mauve."

His action scenes, however, are where the author's style comes into its own--the charge of a wounded lion, the killing of an ancient elephant, a fire at sea, a battle in the jungle, a knife fight between redoubtable adversaries, a furious tropical storm. Just about the time you feel you have absorbed one metaphor too many, you realize that this is what a tropical storm--a wild exaggeration of nature--must be like: rain coming in "cutting horizontal sheets like the blade of a harvester's knife," and dawn finding the survivors "still huddled from the streams of falling rain, under the swollen bruised sky that pressed down on them like the belly of a pregnant sow."

This book is quite impossible to dislike, as is most of its dauntless cast. The author runs into some credibility problems rendering the character of his heroine, however. Robyn Ballantyne is a young English physician who is returning to Africa, the land of her birth, to search for her long-lost missionary father and to bring God's word to the heathen tribes along the way. While her brother, Zouga, who accompanies her (although his goals are wealth and fame), and the others behave according to the traits ascribed to them, Robyn must wrestle with an overdose of conflicting obsessions. The most troublesome--for both her and the reader--are Christian devoutness and profane lust. She is given to flinging herself into prayer, but she's a pushover for male beauty. Oh well.

If, accustomed to contemporary, existential-type heroes, you find yourself shaking your head over the derring-do of Mungo St. John, Zouga Ballantyne and the brash, blue-eyed Christian warrior Clinton Codrington, you probably will be cheering them on by the next page or so. And if, partial to leaner literary fare, you occasionally cluck over the brawny prose that swells the story to more than 500 pages, relax and enjoy. You've entered the kingdom of popular fiction and are best advised to suspend disbelief at the gate.

"Flight of the Falcon" is Wilbur Smith's 15th novel. Most of the others are also set in Africa, where he has lived and worked all his life. He is currently a resident of Constantia, South Africa. An obvious master of the popular genre, he brings authority and historical accuracy to his scenes as he delivers a fast-moving and enjoyable book.