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Wizards' Country


Daphne Rooke

  The Riverside Press  
Release Date:



Historical Fiction: Zulu country, 1870s

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This story starts beautifully. "A movement in the reeds, a river pebble rolling on the stones… the people stop to listen. Perhaps a magic dwarf is there, come to steal a maiden or to work some mischief in the crops. Perhaps he has come innocently, to frolic with the children. Where is he, who may hide in a shadow? Magic dwarf, hear it on the edge of the wind, in grass, hear it in the crying of the quail. I who am old listen as I listened when I was a boy."

We are introduced into the beautiful countryside and peaceful life of the Tshanini clan, living in the mountains near the Tugela River. The story is told in first person from Benge's point of view. Benge is a hunchback. Usually, a hunchback would be killed as a being of evil, but his mother told people that he was not born that way, but caused to be that way by buffalos playing with him as a baby, thus making him blessed. Benge worships his brother, Thunzi, because he is strong and beautiful. They grow up together in the peaceful reign of Umpande.

As the story progresses, the peaceful reign of Umpande gives way to the warlike Cetshwayo. Cetshwayo takes the best sons of the clans to build his army, including Benge's brother. The new king also demands that only the marriages he decrees are legal, and anyone who defies this order will be killed. Thunzi is in love with a non-approved girl, Cece, who quickly becomes the moving force for much of the tragedy in the rest of the story.

Meanwhile, Benge ranges to other clans and pretends to be a magic dwarf in the bushes, grabbing girls and taking advantage of them. The straightforward way Benge's treatment of women is described is disturbing to my modern sense of right and wrong, but definitely fits in the character that develops.

This book includes political discord, clan rivalries, ancestor worship, curses by witches, magic pythons, young love, rape, abandonment, touching scenes between grandparents, war with other tribes and the English. The writing is effective in conveying the setting and mindset of the characters. It's definitely a picture into a world different from our own. I really wanted to like this book.

Unfortunately, the main character is so self-centered and spoiled, I just couldn't like him. His coming of age could have been inspiring if it didn't include running rough-shod over others. It's interesting that the author chooses the unlikeable Benge as the main character. It would have been a much different book, and possibly not as honest a picture of the society, if the story followed his brother Thunzi's quest for manhood and subsequent triumphs and tragedies. I wanted to give it four sponges for historical information and feel. However, I give it three because I just didn't enjoy it.

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