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.
The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian
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
Author Information: Website | Twitter
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.
I’m glad you reviewed this because I’ve been curious about this book. It sure sounds good on paper, too bad it was so confusing in audio!
Yes, not the fault of the book, I should have known the audio will have its downsides!
No mystery? Oh well, it works anyway, so that is good
It was more suspenseful and anxiety-inducing, with everyone held at gunpoint lol! But at least there’s the mystery of trying to find out why they were being taken hostage.
I had a number of thoughts while reading your review, mostly elated to Agatha Christie (I happen to currently be reading Peril at End House). I can understand your initial pull to this book thinking it might be Christie-esque. I only started reading Christie in the past 5 years or so but I’ve become hooked and find myself drawn to her style of mystery in ways I never was before. Interesting also you mention the large cast and how that might have taken away a bit of your enjoyment, and the impact of listening to audio versus the experience of reading the words. Just looking at the Christie stories I’ve read so far, almost all of which have been in audio form, I do find myself sometimes getting a bit lost when the cast becomes quite large and I’ve wondered if I were to read a print version if that wouldn’t be as much of a factor. But I have to say, regarding Christie’s audio, Emilia Fox and Hugh Fraser has become many of these characters for me and I just love listening to their renditions of her stories. Finding narrators you enjoy is such a great thing. Anyway, sorry this wasn’t quite as good as you’d hoped but glad you still got some enjoyment from it.
I haven’t read too many of Christie’s books, mainly the big ones, i.e. Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express, etc. With most of her stuff in audio now I should actually look into the format as a way to knock a bunch of them out quickly. The number of characters should probably be more of a deterrent but I’m glad to know they’ve got some good narrators reading her books!
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Shame that this didn’t quite live up to expectations but you liked it which is a plus. Too many characters though – sometimes I just want my reads to not hurt my brain too much. Looking at the length of this one it perhaps doesn’t have the length in terms of page count to support such a large cast.
I have read other books with a large number of characters that still work out, so I think it might just be the pacing and the fact we had so many flashbacks that threw me off a bit.
Yeah it’s a little hard to care about a faceless mob of characters especially when you don’t relate to any of them. Plus to hear about the lack of thrills (and that they killed the native guides off first)… I think this review would summarize my excitement for the new movie Beast.
Oh there was definitely plenty of thrills in the present timeline, but the fact they kept flashing back really screwed with the momentum. And the killing off the native guides first thing – that part was actually deliberate and played into the bit of social commentary the story provided.