The Seventh Scroll, by Wilbur Smith

7thscrollTitle: The Seventh Scroll

Author: Smith, Wilbur (Author’s Website)

Genre: Adventure stories, thriller

Bibliographic: St. Martin’s Press, 752 pages, Mass Market Paperback List Price $9.99, Abridged Audiobook List Price $12.14 , ISBNs 9780312119997, 9780312945985, 9780312287566, 9780330449953, 9780786204823, 9780333583210, 9781466868229, 9780330450935

Publication Date: March 1, 1995

Rating: ★★★☆☆/♥♥♥♡♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Exaggerated characters, character-driven, intricately plotted, fast-paced, dramatic, suspenseful, violent, compelling, descriptive

Why I picked it up: It was required for discussion for my readers’ advisory class. However, my dad was very excited that I am reading it as it’s one of his favorite authors.

S.I.A.S.: Royan Al Simma and Nicholas Quentin-Harper must race against time to uncover an ancient Egyptian tomb.

Summary: Duraid and Royan Al Simma are Egyptology archaeologists living in Cairo and working on analyzing the discoveries from the tomb of Queen Lostris, who lived four thousand years ago — in particular, they are interested in the seventh in a series of scrolls, which seems to point them in the direction of another tomb which has not yet been discovered. One night, their lab is attacked, all of their materials are stolen, and Duraid is murdered. Royan, who is half-Egyptian and half-English, flees to England to stay with her mother and decides to contact Duraid’s old friend Sir Nicholas Quentin-Harper, to see if he can help her continue her research and uncover the tomb of Lostris’s husband, Pharaoh Mamose, following clues laid out  by their slave Taita. He agrees to help and to fund the expedition, despite the fact that he is nearly bankrupt.

Taita’s clues lead them to Ethiopia, where they encounter a mysterious company called the Pegasus Corporation, which claims to be drilling but is actually searching for the tomb of Mamose under the supervision of a ruthless Texan named Jake Helm and with the full support of the Ethiopian military under the command of the corrupt Colonel Nogo. Throughout the novel, Pegasus continues to make attempts on the lives of the archaeologists, but our heroes keep escaping — often with the help of Nicholas’s many friends, or of the monks in the local monastery.

Royan and Nicholas discover that Pegasus belongs to an awful man named Von Schiller, who wants to discover the tomb for greed and personal gain, and will stop at nothing to get it. They determine that they must excavate before he can — and before the Ethiopia’s annual flooding makes the tomb impassable.

Evaluation:  Before reading it, I thought I was going to love this book — it’s about archaeology, it deals in ancient Egypt, and it’s blurbed by Stephen King. What’s not to like? In reality, though, I thought it was kind of a slog and am left feeling generally dissatisfied with the whole thing. For starters, it’s entirely too long, and the characters keep miraculously escaping from one situation after another: first Nicholas survives his trip down the river, then he gets himself out of the sinkhole, then he and Royan make it through the rock slide completely unhurt. Some of these miraculous escapes are based on skill, but just as many are sheer dumb luck, and I had trouble believing that anyone’s luck would hold that long. I also thought that most of the scenes with Von Schiller were superfluous — we understand that he’s evil without needing to be beaten over the head with it, and Smith’s insistence on showing his sexual appetites was jarring, as well, unless you believe that a proclivity towards kink is a harbinger of an evil disposition (which I don’t).

The characters were a mixed bag — Von Schiller was absolutely flat and predictable, but others, such as Woizero Tessay and Mek Timmur, were surprisingly nuanced. I thought Royan was a little bit annoying, but I suppose her single-minded focus and her constant emphasis on doing the right thing aren’t necessarily unbelievable, nobody is infallible (except Royan Al Simma, apparently). The setting is where the writing really shines — Wilbur Smith does an excellent job of describing the characters and their surroundings, especially when describing the river.

I can’t honestly say I found The Seventh Scroll enjoyable to read — there were times when it hooked me, sure, but just as frequently I was jarred back out of the story by something incongruous or unbelievable. There were just too many convenient coincidences. I might still recommend it to people, since it is incredibly popular and I’m clearly the dissenting opinion. Maybe for Dan Brown fans, or people who like historical fiction and want something with a little bit of adventure. Or anyone who wants books like Indiana Jones.

Significance: The Seventh Scroll was a massive bestseller, and is the second in a popular six-book series. It’s unique in that the first book in the series is set 4,000 years in the past — The River God is about the people who the archaeologists in The Seventh Scroll are studying. It was also made into a TV miniseries in 1999.

Readalikes: The Hippopotamus Marsh, by Pauline Gedge. The Eye of Heaven, by Clive Cussler. The Lost Army of Cambyses, by Paul Sussman.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Throughout the novel, the characters discuss Taita as if he were a living, breathing entity — they speak directly to him, and refer to their excavation as his “game.” What do you make of their relationship with Taita? Can a character who died four millennia ago have agency?
  2. Throughout the novel, Royan is careful to emphasize that they are archaeologists and scientists, not looters. What is the difference? Do you agree with Royan that the treasure should have been returned to the Egyptian government? What do you think of the private collectors? What about Nicholas?
  3. At the beginning of the novel, the monks believe their relic is the body of St. Frumentius, but by the end they know that this is not the case. Does it matter to them whose body is in their relic? Why or why not?
  4. Why is Nicholas so determined to return his dik-dik pelt to England? How is his family honor tied to his private museum?
  5. Were you surprised by the epilogue? Did it feel authentic to you? Why or why not?

Lists and Awards: None.

Professional Reviews: Publishers’ Weekly. Kirkus.

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