Book Review: King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider HaggardPosted: April 16, 2014
I seem to be on a bit of a retro-adventure kick in recent months, kicking off with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stuff and I’ve loaded up my Kindle with a bunch of old timey fantasy and adventure books, including this.
All I know about H. Rider Haggard is that he created Allan Quatermain, the hunter featured in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics and also the novel She which was made into a pretty cheesy movie starring Ursula Andress and Peter Cushing. Both share the theme of being set in Africa, so I expected a ripping yarn of wild beasts and savage lands.
The book doesn’t disappoint, Quatermain is approached by Sir Henry Curtis, who’s brother has gone missing in Africa searching for Solomon’s Mines, rumoured to house vast wealth in diamonds and gems. Quatermain, saw the man before he vanished and has also met a Portuguese man who’s ancestor claimed to have reached the mines. Despite his own protestations of cowardliness, agrees to go and along with Curtis’ friend, and ex-Navy officer Captain Good, along with their servants, set off across the desert.
Almost dying of thirst they arrive at a lush valley where they encounter a native tribe which is headed up by the evil King Twala, who’s sadistic rule is backed up by mysterious witch Gagool, who uses “magic” to seek out traitors in the rank and purge anyone who gets too powerful. Quatermain’s group are held in high esteem and wonder due to their unusual appearance, but their African guide, Umbopa, attracts the attention of Gagool, who wants him dead.
Umbopa turns out to be Twala’s nephew, who fled years previously and is the rightful king, and many of the generals want to join him in rebellion. Using Good’s diary they use a lunar eclipse to convince Twala and the rebelling forces of their powers, and a civil war begins.
Will Umbopa claim the throne? Are the mines the key to a wealthy, comfortable life for the party? And can they find Curtis’ brother?
This was quite a fun, gripping read, filled with perils and action, even if the narrative device of Quatermain writing his memoir robs it of some danger. But Haggard writes with an easy, fast moving tone which kept me engrossed in the tale.
Quatermain makes an odd narrator, a slightly pompous older man who constantly discusses his “timidity” yet makes his living in the wilds as a hunter and who embraces a perilous mission with very little coercion. I think some of the pomposity is intentional, and Haggard does a good job of making Quatermain and his fellows quite likable in spite of this.
It’s dated in places, there’s an embarrassing patronizing attitude towards the natives throughout, even though Quatermain does seem genuinely affectionate and respectful to some. There’s also an uncomfortable subplot whereby a native girl they rescue falls for Good, and he feels affection for her, which Quatermain sees as a terrible thing to happen, and something that Good would be better avoiding. It reflects the attitude of the time, and it’s possible that Haggard intended Quatermain’s concerns to have more to do with how society would react, but it still sits awkwardly for a modern audience.
So too does a sequence where Quatermain, Curtis and Good slaughter a mess of elephants for their ivory. It may have seemed like an abundance of the beasts to those of the time, but being aware of how many elephants were killed and how close to extinction they’d come it made me uneasy, especially as Haggard talks of rampaging bulls and refers to them as “brutes”, clearly trying to up the ante and portray them as a worthy and terrible foe.
But these quibbles aside it’s massively entertaining, and I found myself flying through it, charmed by the old fashioned adventure story. Haggard’s writing isn’t showy but it gets the job done, and he creates an interesting quest and some hissable villains. All in all, rather good fun.
Verdict: It’s dated and it’s narrator is a bit stuck up, but Haggard’s adventure pulls through as a ripping yarn which remains enjoyable. 7/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.