A lean, fast-paced account of the almost absurdly dangerous quest by those two friends turned enemies, Richard Burton and John Speke, to solve the geographic riddle of their era ... This is not new ground...but Candice Millard has earned her legions of admirers. She is a graceful writer and a careful researcher, and she knows how to navigate a tangled tale ... She takes pains to put her story in context.
The centerpiece of Ms. Millard’s book, goes beyond harrowing and into the ghastly ... Ms. Millard’s research and very readable storytelling are admirable, but there are some disappointing lacunae in River of the Gods. For instance, she doesn’t offer her own theory on whether Speke’s death was an accident or a suicide ... Ultimately, the identity of the person who first discovered the source of the White Nile may be a trivial matter. Ms. Millard conscientiously investigates the issue, of course, but River of the Gods is compelling because she does justice to the psyches and behavior of Burton and Speke—keenly flawed but enthralling, sometimes marvelous people.
Millard reminds us of the historical impact of this lethal fairy tale ... Apart from Millard’s meticulous research and suspenseful prose, she brings an enormous enthusiasm for the narrow escapes and daring-dos of human history, the impulse to act decisively in the face of death. Her books explore extraordinary men who shared the same restless curiosity and stomach for hardship long before ease and consumerism slaked mankind’s thirst for discovery. In these times of serious economic, geopolitical, and medical challenges, her book offers readers a special kind of escapism – to intense obstacles of an entirely different kind
... while [Millard's] book is neither as infectiously readable as Moorehead’s (which is now outdated) nor as comprehensive and deeply researched as Jeal’s, she does add a new dimension to the story. Perhaps as a corrective to the Anglocentrism of earlier accounts, she brings a third figure into the foreground: Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a formerly enslaved African who acted as guide and interpreter for Burton, Speke and several other explorers over the years. It’s a refreshing shift in emphasis and certainly overdue, but since relatively few details about Bombay survive in the historical record, there are limits to how much Millard can tell us ... Millard recounts all of these travails with a fluid grace that wears its learning lightly. She leaves some important parts of the story untold but shows a keen sensitivity to aspects that have at times been underplayed, such as the role of slavery and the slave trade in the effort of discovery.
Millard is an outstanding narrative historian, with the gift of breathing new life into long-forgotten stories, but what she does best is communicate to the reader the horrid details of suffering. There is a passage in which Burton’s companion and rival, John Hanning Speke, is attacked by an avalanche of beetles, one of which burrows into his ear and is poised to set off on an expedition for his brain. Speke was forced to try to dig the creature out with a knife, and Millard takes almost clinical care in exploring the depths of his misery ... It may not be entirely seemly for the reader to take pleasure in the suffering of Burton and Speke, but the allure of traveling with Candice Millard should not be missed.
Thanks to this richly detailed story well told by historian Candice Millard, a colorful and controversial chapter in world history resurfaces ... Millard...among others, introduces a cast of characters and succeeds in making each of them unforgettable ... Millard excels at describing it all, balancing narrative flow with abundant details that give a vast landscape its weight and power, clarify complicated people and arduous journeys, and add those who have gone largely unseen to the historical stage. Take, for example, such memorable details as a beetle burrowing into Speke’s ear; the thieves, deserters and raiders thwarting these yearslong expeditions; diseases and infections leading to blindness, deafness and death; the hardships of Bombay, who was once traded for cloth; and two huge, breathtakingly beautiful lakes, one of which, it was finally proven, spawned the Nile.
Fascinating ... 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.
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 ... An engrossing, sharply drawn adventure tale.