An army of fanatical Muslim extremists rampages through Sudan, sweeping down from the north, taking slaves, causing famine and slaughtering any force that tries to stand in its way.
The latest headlines? Perhaps Phillip Caputo's latest literary novel from the scene of the current human rights disaster? No, proving that some things never change, this is a description of "The Triumph of the Sun," the latest historical romantic adventure by Wilbur Smith, set as the Victorian era nears its end in the late 1800s.
"Triumph" features a member of both the families who have starred in Smith's African pioneer sagas, the Courtneys and the Ballantynes. Since Smith does not write these things in any semblance of chronological order, it's worth noting that his latest novels opens in the years just before Smith's first novel, "When the Lion Feeds," which introduced the South African Courtney family 44 years ago and takes place just after his second Ballantyne novel, "Men of Men." Got that?
Set during the famous siege of Khartoum, "Triumph" is more tied to actual historical events than any of Smith's other Courtney or Ballantyne novels, which is both its strength and a weakness.
As the story opens, freewheeling adventurer and merchant Ryder Courtney is running the gauntlet on the Nile River set up by the Mahdi and his fanatical Muslim forces, bringing food and supplies to besieged Khartoum.
In Khartoum, famed British Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon rules though a combination of charisma, faith and ruthlessness as he tries to hold the line against overwhelming odds. On the other side, the Mahdi is a mesmerizing religious aesthete who holds himself up as the successor to the Prophet Mohammed and has, for the first time, united the Arab tribes into a fearsome Dervish army.
But Ryder is primarily concerned with the family of British consul David Penbrook - especially his beautiful, naive daughter, Rebecca, and her extremely precocious pre-teen twin sisters.
Meanwhile, dashing Capt. Penrod Ballantyne is preparing a daring trip to the city in advance of a relief mission that always seems bogged down by incompetence, politics and risk-averse officers.
Penrod is the only commander to have defeated the Mahdi's forces on the battlefield, which has brought him to the attention of the fearsome Emir Osman Atalan, a great warrior whose favorite sport is hunting elephants armed only with a sword. Ballantyne and Atalan have personalized the war almost as much as Gordon and the Mahdi have.
This sets the stage for scenes that include nearly everything that has enthralled Smith fans for four decades: detailed and thrilling big-game hunting scenes, gory combat on a large and small scale, romantic triangles, the endurance of suffering brought about by both the elements and human opponents and the clash - and alliance - of larger-than-life characters.
Smith fills his books with fascinating African lore and sets his historical context without resorting to dull travelogue or history text pedantry. When you finish this book, you will know how to disable an elephant with a broadsword, how to manage your water supply in a desert crossing, how the Mahdi empire was eventually defeated and how to judge the pecking order of a harem, but you will never feel lectured to or be tempted to skip ahead.
Best of all, Smith's characters may be larger than life, but they are flawed and never superheroes. While they may be occasionally slightly ahead of their time, they also are firmly rooted in their times, not politically correct 21st century types who lecture readers on the evils of the past.
It's always mystified me that Smith's books are marketed largely to a male audience. Sure, there is lots of fighting, warring, hunting, and other staples of manly fiction, but at heart, his novels are historical romances in the classic sense and family sagas with loads of conflict.
Because "The Triumph of the Sun" is so closely tied to historical events, with some of the main characters standing in for real people, the story necessarily lags slightly in its final act. That's a quibble, however, as there is more action and romance in the first 450 pages of this adventure than in a half dozen historical novels by almost any other author.