Thursday Thriller Audio: The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Thriller, Historical Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Random House Audio (May 10, 2022)
Length: 10 hrs and 30 mins
Narrators: January LaVoy, Grace Experience, Gabrielle De Cuir
This was somewhat of an outside-the-box read for me, even when it comes to thrillers. But when I learned of this historical thriller set in the 1960s which follows a group of Hollywood stars who afoul of a deadly kidnapping during an African safari on the Serengeti, there was an Agatha Christie-ness to the killer mystery plotline which appealed to me. Hence, I took a chance on The Lioness.
The central figure of the novel is Katie Barstow, a young actress who has risen to the peak of her career. Every movie she stars in is immediately a success, and she’s even risen high in her personal life, with her recent marriage to David Hill, an art gallery owner who was also childhood best friend with her older brother. To celebrate all the happiness in her life, Katie has decided to invite her closest friends and family to no expense spared adventure to Tanzania, where the group will be treated to visions of sunset-lit and acacia tree-lined horizons as well as the wild herds of roving wildebeests, giraffes, and zebras. After spending their dusty days out on the plains photographing the majestic wildlife, they will then spend their nights drinking gin and tonics chilled with portable icemakers and enjoying warm water baths filled by their local guides before retiring to proper beds. A good hostess, Katie has ensured that none of her glamorous guests will go without the usual luxuries.
But what none of them expected was violence. On a safari day like any other, the group is suddenly ambushed by mercenaries driving trucks and wielding guns. Katie and her friends are rounded up and held hostage while any of the safari guides who try to help them are shot and killed. From their language and manner, Katie deduces that the gunmen are Russian, but what could Russian mercenaries possibly want with a group of Hollywood elites? Could this be as simple as a kidnapping for ransom? Or is there something more to the picture she’s not seeing? As the body count rises, all Katie can do is fight for survival and hope her nerves won’t fail her when it counts.
The character list for The Lioness is quite long. Besides Katie and her husband David, her brother Billy and his pregnant wife Margie are also along for the ride. There’s also Katie’s best friend and fellow actress Carmen and her husband Felix, a screenwriter. Then there are the single guests, who include Terrance Dutton, a celebrated black actor and Katie’s good friend; publicist and director Reggie Stout; and Peter, Katie’s agent. This group is next accompanied by team members of the safari led by Charlie Patton, a famed big game hunter who also owns the business. His employees are made up of local guides, porters, and other support staff like young Benjamin Kilwete who is starstruck by the American actors.
While this setup certainly resembles something Christie-esque, the reality is actually quite different. But though I did not get what I’d expected, I did enjoy the book. There is no mystery here of who the killer is; we know who the mercenaries are and who they work for. The question is, what do they want? The story unfolds via the POVs of the various characters, and there are also flashbacks aplenty, going into their backgrounds which may reveal clues into their predicament.
In this sense, The Lioness works better as a character drama rather a true mystery thriller. As much bloodshed as there is, what action we get is quite muted. The backstories of the characters take center stage, diving into their pasts, their inner most desires, and the important events in their lives that have shaped their futures and motivations. The setting of the 1960s is also significant and plays a role in unveiling of the overall plot. In an era of much socio-cultural change, there are yet tensions in race relations, matters like sexual orientation was only spoken of in hushed tones, and prejudice against women was still rampant. All of which are topics that the story explores.
Ultimately though, what hurts The Lioness most is the sheer number of characters to keep track of, and I didn’t really feel close to any of them, didn’t really care if they lived or died. Truth be told, I was having a hard time even trying to figure out who survived the ordeal by the end. It probably also didn’t help that I listened to the audio edition, which I can’t really say was the best format for a book like this with so many POVs. And the fact that the thrills never truly materialized made this one just an okay thriller—but it’s an interesting read for sure. Though I would have preferred a more engaging mystery and characters I could feel invested in, it’s recommended if the historical aspects or the safari backdrop catches your eye.