Reviews for River Of The Gods

by Candice Millard

Publishers Weekly
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Bestseller Millard (Hero of the Empire) recounts one of the greatest 19th-century British colonial explorations in this fascinating history. In 1854, the Royal Geographical Society chose Richard Francis Burton to lead an expedition to locate the source of the White Nile, the longest branch of the Nile River. After one member of his original team died before the journey, Burton hired Lt. John Hanning Speke of the Bengal Native Infantry, an avid hunter and member of the British aristocracy. Tensions between the two strong-willed men quickly surfaced, but Burton was more fortunate in his hiring of Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a formerly enslaved East African, as head gun carrier. While Burton recuperated from an illness, Speke and Bombay reached Lake Nyanza (also known as Lake Victoria), which Speke claimed as the Nile’s source. Burton maintained that Speke had failed to settle the question, but before the two men could publicly debate the issue in 1864, Speke died in a hunting accident. Subsequent explorations, in which Bombay took part, proved Speke’s theory. Millard’s lushly detailed adventure story keeps a steady eye on the racial power dynamics involved in this imperialist endeavor and brilliantly illuminates the characters of Burton, Speke, and Bombay. Readers will be riveted. Illus. (May)

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

The lure of uncharted territory. The Rosetta Stone—discovered by French soldiers in 1799, seized by a British envoy, and deciphered 23 years later—set off an obsessive interest in Egypt, including by the newly established Royal Geographical Society, to find the headwaters of the Nile. Bestselling author Millard, a former writer and editor for National Geographic, offers a tense, vibrant history of several dramatic expeditions across East Africa that finally resulted in a successful discovery. Drawing on archival sources and her own multiple trips to Africa following the explorers’ paths, Millard creates a palpable sense of the daunting task undertaken by three ambitious men: the magnetic, impulsive, and often combative Richard Burton; John Hanning Speke, an aristocratic infantry lieutenant and passionate hunter whose initial interest in East Africa was largely for the animals he could kill; and their devoted and resourceful native guide, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a former enslaved person whose intimate knowledge of tribes and terrain proved to be indispensable. Guides like Bombay, Millard argues persuasively, formed the indisputable backbone of British exploration. After abortive starts, the expedition left Zanzibar on June 27, 1857. The explorers and their team, woefully underfunded, faced innumerable hardships: scorching heat, drenching storms, near starvation, massive desertions, and threats from “large, powerful, and politically complex” East African kingdoms. Illness and injury dogged them, as they suffered from typhoid, smallpox, infected wounds, and bone-shattering fevers. Speke suffered near blindness from ophthalmia, and he became deaf in one ear after a beetle burrowed into his ear canal. For nearly a year, Burton lay paralyzed. Although they became the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika, they could not proceed together to Lake Nyanza, which Speke insisted was the Nile’s source. Back in London, Speke cruelly denounced Burton’s leadership, securing funding for his own expedition. Although Burton died poor and angry, his legacy, unlike Speke’s, has endured. An engrossing, sharply drawn adventure tale. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

The nineteenth century brought increased zeal for exploration and the discovery of a heretofore unknown geological wonder that would bring fame to its discoverer. None were more mythical in the collective imagination or more highly prized than the discovery of the source of the Nile River. Millard’s (Hero of the Empire, 2016) splendid latest tracks the expeditions to claim the prize for England, the first of which was led by the enigmatic Richard Francis Burton. The lionized Burton was a decorated soldier, poet, translator, adventurer, and fencing master who was fascinated by other cultures and spoke 29 languages. Second in command was the prideful and embittered John Hanning Speke, whose ambition was only matched by his jealousy of Burton. Millard expertly guides the reader on an eye-level journey alongside Burton and company on expeditions fraught with peril and beset by pestilence and interminable discomforts. The vivid descriptions of the conditions and exquisite detail in which the surroundings are rendered are the result of Millard’s thorough knowledge of her subject and her rich, descriptive prose. Millard highlights the invaluable contributions of the formerly enslaved Sidi Mubarak Bombay, whose role proved to be invaluable. She also notes the egregious colonialism, including the tendency to name rivers, lakes, and mountains after British monarchy. This standout history thrills with a novelistic narrative astutely balanced by impeccable research.