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Literature / Courtney Series

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A series of novels by Wilbur Smith describing the adventures, fortunes and misfortunes of several generations of the sprawling and ambitious Courtney family, from the late seventeenth century to the present day.

The series began in 1964 with When the Lion Feeds, Smith's first published novel which was set in Southern Africa in the late nineteenth century and followed the adventures of Sean Courtney who fights in the Zulu War and then goes on to make and lose a fortune in the Witwatersrand gold fields before heading off into the Bushveld to hunt for ivory. Although Smith did not originally envision a series of novels about the Courtneys, he returned to them with The Sound of Thunder (1966) in which Sean fights in the Boer War and later has to deal with the revenge of his embittered twin brother Garrick. Smith continued to return to the Courtneys in later novels, adding new members of the family by taking the series well into the twentieth century and then back in time to the seventeenth.

Helpfully, Wilbur Smith's website has a Courtney family tree.

    The novels 

The Courtney series can generally be divided into five distinct sequences, which are as follows (the books are listed in chronological order within each sequence, with the date of publication in brackets):

First sequence (late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries)

  • When the Lion Feeds (1964)
  • The Sound of Thunder (1966)
  • A Sparrow Falls (1977)

Second sequence (twentieth century) (sometimes referred to as the 'Courtneys of Africa' series)

  • The Burning Shore (1985)
  • Power of the Sword (1986)
  • Rage (1987)
  • Golden Fox (1990)
  • A Time to Die (1989)

Third sequence (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) (sometimes referred to as the Birds of Prey trilogy, prior to the addition of newer stories with the help of co-writers)

  • Birds of Prey (1997)
  • Golden Lion (2015; co-written with Giles Kristian)
  • Monsoon (1999)
  • The Tiger's Prey (2017; co-written with Tom Harper)
  • Blue Horizon (2003)
  • Ghost Fire (2019; co-written with Tom Harper)

Fourth sequence (late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries, focusing on a different branch of the family than the first two sequences)

  • The Triumph of the Sun (2005; also counts as a novel in the Ballantyne Series)
  • King of Kings (2019; co-written with Imogen Robertson; also counts as a novel in the Ballantyne Series)
  • Assegai (2009)
  • War Cry (2017; co-written with David Churchill)
  • Courtney's War (2018; co-written with David Churchill)
  • Legacy of War (2021; co-written with David Churchill)

Fifth sequence (early twenty-first century) (the Jack Courtney series, intended for younger readers)

  • Cloudburst (2020; co-written with Chris Wakling)
  • Thunderbolt (2021; co-written with Chris Wakling)

The following tropes can be found in the Courtney books

  • Accidental Hero: In When the Lion Feeds, Garrick Courtney senior inadvertently prevents the Zulus from forcing their way into a makeshift hospital ward at the Battle of Rorke's Drift — for which he's awarded the Victoria Cross. He was only there because he'd been taken ill, which probably saved him from being killed along with his father at Isandlwana. His brother Sean, who is missing presumed dead for a while but turns out to have survived, is convinced that he's been awarded it in error.
  • Action Mom: The formidable Centaine de Thiry, matriarch of the twentieth-century Courtneys.
  • Anachronic Order: The novels were not published in the order in which they happen chronologically - even before the co-writers got involved. The events of Golden Fox, for example, occur before A Time to Die even though the former was published a year after the latter. The above division of sequences is the best guide.
  • Author Appeal: These are Wilbur Smith novels. Therefore, there will be swashbuckling, big-game hunting and sex.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Michael Courtney junior, a seemingly peaceable young man in the second sequence, ends up getting involved in terrorism after joining the ANC.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Absolutely.
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: Implied to be the case with just about every Courtney man.
  • Born Winner: Usually at least one Courtney per generation. May cause resentment among their siblings.
  • Break the Cutie: Classic examples are Centaine de Thiry in The Burning Shore and Isabella Courtney in Golden Fox.
  • But We Used a Condom!: A variant — when Isabella Courtney realises that she's pregnant in Golden Fox, her first reaction is one of incredulity as she's on the Pill. What she doesn't know is that Ramon Machado, her lover, had switched her pills for duds in order to get her pregnant so that he, and his KGB paymasters, can use her as an unwitting pawn in their nefarious plans.
  • Cain and Abel: It seems to run in the family...
    • In the original sequence, we have Sean and Garrick. The latter, who lost a foot in a shooting accident when they were small boys, is highly resentful of the former, although they eventually reconcile.
    • In the second sequence, Sean junior and Garrick junior have this dynamic for a while — Sean is that generation's golden boy while Garrick is the runt who has to work hard to achieve success. This this leads to a fist-fight between them in Golden Fox, which Garrick wins, following which they are able to work together to thwart a terrorist threat which involves their younger brother Michael.
    • In the third sequence, there are four Courtney brothers to fight among themselves. William tries to murder Tom, and gets killed himself as a result. Tom's twin brother Guy, meanwhile, grows up to be a Card-Carrying Villain, which pits him against Tom and Dorien.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Most villains are this. Take Sir Guy Courtney for example — he's obviously evil and dastardly, and would most certainly inflict violence on women and children if given the chance.
  • Character Overlap: At various times, the Courtneys interract with the Ballantynes, that other family that Wilbur Smith has written several novels about. The first time both families provide main characters is in The Triumph of the Sun. Before then, there are a few examples of Ballantynes playing cameo roles in the 1980s Courtney books. For example, Sean Courtney junior serves under Roland Ballantyne in the Rhodesian Bush War.
  • Dark Secret: A few characters have these. The prize goes to Centaine de Thiry, who in addition to being Manfred de la Rey’s mother was never actually married to Michael Courtney senior (he was killed in action hours before they were due to be married).
  • Dirty Communists: In addition to bankrolling the ANC, the KGB is getting up to all sorts of dirty tricks throughout Africa in Rage and Golden Fox.
  • Doorstopper: They're Wilbur Smith books, so yeah.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Shasa Courtney sports one of these after losing an eye during World War II.
  • Extruded Book Product: Very much the case since Wilbur changed publishers in 2012 and started using co-writers.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Happens a few times. Lothar de la Rey in The Burning Shore is perhaps the most obvious, earning Centaine de Thiry's undying enmity by murdering the San Bushmen who had rescued her.
  • Four-Star Badass: Sean Courtney senior, who's a general on the Western Front in A Sparrow Falls - and he likes to spend as much time on the front line as he possibly can.
  • Great White Hunter: Both Sean Courtneys are this, as is their cousin Leon.
  • Heel–Face Turn: In The Tiger's Prey, Francis Courtney junior sets out to kill his uncle Tom after learning that he killed his father, William. Turns out that, while he's not wrong (Tom had indeed killed William in Monsoon), there are a few details that he hasn't been told — mainly, that William was a bad man who was trying to kill Tom at the time. Once he actually meets Tom, it's not long before the issue is resolved and the two become quite friendly.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: In Rage, Shasa Courtney is a South African politician who's trying to justify the Apartheid system to the outside world.
  • Kissing Cousins: Mansur and Verity Courtney in Blue Horizon. They don't know each other growing up and only meet when they're adults, mind you.
  • Latin Lover: Played with; Ramon Machado comes across as this when he's romancing Isabella Courtney in Golden Fox, but it's actually a subterfuge — he's really the novel's Big Bad. The reader, of course, is made aware of this from the start.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Surprisingly averted, given the number of characters who are unaware of their true parentage.
    • Michael Courtney senior never does find out that Sean senior (not Garrick senior) is his actual father. Centaine de Thiry is able to use her Sherlock Scan to get Sean to confess this to her after Michael’s death.
    • In The Tiger's Prey, Tom and Christopher Courtney have a tower-top confrontation that looks like it's going this way — Christopher doesn't know that Tom is his father, and he even loses a hand in the sword-fight, just to make the Empire Strikes Back reference obvious (the twist here being that it's the son who's the evil one). But Christopher jumps off the tower before he can learn the truth. That said, Lydia Ashby (his lover) has already guessed this although she appears not to have told him.
    • The only time it's properly invoked is when Centaine de Thiry finally tells Manfred de la Rey that she's his mother at the end of Power of the Sword - and even then, she only does it because he threatens to expose her other Dark Secret.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted several times.
    • Shasa Courtney names his sons Sean, Garrick and Michael - after his great-uncle (who was actually his grandfather), his grandfather (who was actually his great-uncle) and his father (who was ... actually his father).
    • William Courtney names his son Francis, after his grandfather.
    • Leon Courtney names his daughter Saffron, after his mother.
  • Pass the Popcorn: When Sean Courtney junior and his brother Garrick junior finally square up to each other in Golden Fox, their sister Isabella is horrified and begs their father, Shasa, to stop it. He refuses to do so, as he's well aware that this fight has been brewing for years — Sean being the naturally-gifted Born Winner to whom opportunity came easily, and Garrick being the bullied runt who has had to work hard at everything he's ever done. Instead, Shasa sits back, pours himself a drink and watches to see which of his sons will prevail. Garrick wins.
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Sean and Garrick Courtney in When the Lion Feeds and The Sound of Thunder. Also, Tom and Guy Courtney in Monsoon, The Tiger's Prey and Blue Horizon.
  • Race Fetish: In Rage and Golden Fox, there are a couple of white characters (specifically, Tara Malcomess and Michael Courtney junior) whose opposition to Apartheid somehow manifests itself as a sexual attraction to black men.
  • Real Award, Fictional Character: Several examples, mostly (but not exclusively) concerning British military decorations.
    • Garrick Courtney senior is awarded the Victoria Cross for preventing the Zulus from forcing their way into a makeshift hospital ward at Rorke's Drift, albeit inadvertently. He's later knighted.
    • During the The Second Boer War, Sean Courtney senior is awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Distinguished Service Order. Both were bravery medals considered to be one level down from the VC — the former for rank and file, the latter for officers (Sean being promoted from the ranks between the two actions for which he earned the medals).
    • Both Michael Courtney senior and his son Shasa are awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross - the former in World War I, the latter in World War II.
    • In Power of the Sword, two characters win medals for South Africa at the 1936 Olympic Games, most notably Manfred de la Rey who gets the gold for boxing.
  • Remember the New Guy?: What with the books having been written out of chronological order, this happens a couple of times.
    • Centaine de Thiry makes her first appearance in The Burning Shore (1985) which overlaps with A Sparrow Falls (1977), in which she's (obviously) not mentioned. Wilbur provides an explanation of sorts by ensuring that she and Storm Courtney, a major character in the latter, do not get along.
    • Ryder Courtney first appears in The Triumph of the Sun (2005) and is quickly identified as the uncle of Sean Courtney of When the Lion Feeds (1964) fame. The uncle he never mentioned.
  • Sexless Marriage: Garrick Courtney senior and Anna van Essen in When the Lion Feeds. She's actually in love with Sean senior, and only marries Garrick because she's pregnant with Sean's child and believes him to be dead. Then Sean returns — and rejects her because she's his brother's wife. Her subsequent hatred of Sean drives a deep wedge between the two brothers that isn't resolved until she kills herself by burning down the Courtney family home at the end of The Sound of Thunder.
  • Sherlock Scan: Although she's not a detective, Centaine de Thiry is very good at reading people. Especially men. Shasa Courtney, her son, is just as adept - he's able to work out that Jakobus Stander is Manfred de la Rey's illegitimate son just by looking at the pair of them when he's in the same room as them. He doesn’t work out that he himself is Manfred's half-brother, though.
  • Sibling Rivalry: This happens a lot with the Courtneys.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: In The Burning Shore, Ceintaine de Thiry finds that she’s pregnant with Michael Courtney senior’s child after he gets killed in action. Their son, Shasa Courtney, goes on to be a major character in later novels.
  • The Un-Favourite: Pretty much any Courtney boy whose first name begins with 'G'. Usually a late developer who suffers in comparison to the favoured sibling. May become The Resenter. Could grow up to be a Card-Carrying Villain.
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: Michael Courtney senior is a very minor character in When the Lion Feeds and The Sound of Thunder. When The Burning Shore starts, he's front and centre - only to die in action very early on. It’s his lover, Centaine de Thiry, who will be the main character in this story.