Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Book Review: King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Let's just admit it right now. My only exposure to Allan Quatermain is from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, so understand that I first started reading the book in Sean Connery's voice.

However, it wasn't long before I realized that voice is very incongruous with our hero. While Allan Quatermain would certainly be considered quite the manly man, given that he is a big game hunter, the man tends to get caught in trouble by accident rather than seeking it, and he tries to think his way through problems. At one point, he breaks down into tears and, at the end, is still having PTSD nightmares about his experiences.

Our hero: practical, thoughtful, flawed.

But before we get more into that, let's discuss the plot. While traveling back to his home, Quatermain runs into Sir Henry Curtis, who, along with naval Captain Good, is searching for Curtis' younger brother. Two years earlier, the brother went searching for King Solomon's Mines, a diamond mine that was the source of King Solomon's fabled wealth. They seek out Quatermain because a descendant of the supposed discoverer of the mines left a map in his care. Quatermain is reluctant to go on a trip across the searing desert, but agrees when Sir Henry promises a stipend to Quatermain's son if the hunter dies.

They take along a cryptic, dignified native porter named Umbopa, who seems to know more than he is letting on. The first part of the journey involves surviving the heat of the desert, the dangers of angry elephants (goodbye, redshirt servant number one), and the opposite issue of climbing a freezing  mountain (goodbye, redshirt servant number two). They find the body of the map's maker, Jose Silvestre, in an icy cave. But when they come down on the other side, they find a lush land inhabited by a warrior race known as the Kuakana. They see Captain Good's false teeth, monocle, half-shaven face, and pale legs ("beautiful white legs" hahahahaha I need to find a lost kingdom so they can admire my legs), as well as the previously unknown guns, and deem the men gods. While they journey to the capital city, they get some back story.

The previous king was usurped by his brother, Twala, and the queen fled across the mountains with her young son. The Kuakana assume that the two died, but by this point the reader and all of the main characters are giving Umbopa the side-eye.

They have to deal with Twala's skepticism, as well as the suspicions of his witch advisor, Gagool. The first night in the capital, our heroes see a "witch hunt"-Gagool and her witch finders sniff out witches and have them killed in front of everyone. She claims that Umbopa is a witch, but the adventurers use their status (and guns) to protect him. Another character notes that all the "witches" killed that night are of noble status-related to the king in some way. I love this, because it's never stated outright, but it's pretty obvious Gagool is somehow able to sense noble blood and is knocking off any possible competition for Twala.

Sure enough, Umbopa reveals himself as Ignosi, and asks the adventurers' help in regaining his kingdom.

The next night, our heroes come up with a way to turn the people to Ignosi. Quatermain, Good, and Curtis are tasked with showing them a "sign". Good thing they've been keeping track of the eclipse schedule! This might be an overdone trope today, but it was still pretty fresh when this book was written. Our heroes use an "eclipse" as a sign, and when the king's son seems ready to sacrifice a pretty girl to the nearby "gods" anyways, Good straight up kills him. The girl, Foulata, latches onto Good with a fierce loyalty and flees with them as order starts collapsing in the kingdom.

As you can tell, we still haven't actually gotten to the mines. But we still have a Really Big Fight! Ignosi and his forces station themselves at a fort which was used to quarantine soldiers returning from other lands. A fight seems hopeless at first, even when our heroes use their guns: Twala's forces are just too many. But Ignosi comes up with a clever 300-style ploy, and the morale boost from Curtis and Good's fighting makes it possible for the outnumbered rebels to send the Empire running. (That's another thing-Quatermain gets Bilbo'd on the head in the first round, and then just sort of blanks out in the second round. Our hero, everyone!)

They march on the capital, Twala and Curtis duel until Twala is beheaded, and Ignosi is crowned king.

In the downtime, they make plans to find the mines, while Foulata cares for Good, who is suffering from a fever. Quatermain is concerned, because it's obvious she's in love with him, and he's aware Good will pretty easily fall in love with her right back.

Once Good recovers, Ignosi brings our heroes to Gagool, the only person who knows the entrance to the mines. She's apparently incredibly ancient, and her great age and her bizarre knowledge of the adventurers' movements is never really explained. It's implied that she did something to Don Silvestre when he journeyed there in the 16th century, but our heroes don't find out until later.

In the mines, they find the hall where dead kings are kept, and then Gagool shows them the entrance, where they find Don Silvestre's bag still sitting on the floor. You'd think our heroes would suspect something very early on and not go all the way in, but no, they go in and get themselves distracted by shiny things. Gagool tries to run out and shut the door on our heroes, but Foulata wrestles with her until she is stabbed. Gagool doesn't quite make it and is crushed beneath the heavy door.

Foulata dies, and with Gagool dead our heroes spend a couple days trying to eat the food as sparingly as possible. This is where Quatermain cries in despair, but then they realize that they haven't run out of air-it's still fresh. They find a trap door and after a difficult trek through some tunnels, they come out on the other side of the mines.

Also? I love that Quatermain was like "well, since we're getting out of here I might as well grab some diamonds while I'm at it".

When they get back, King Ignosi begs them to stay-he's really become attached to them-but our heroes are eager to get back home. Understanding that longing for home, he bids them farewell.

Their guides show them a different, easier way across the mountains. To their surprise, they find a hut in the last oasis before the desert. What do you know, it's Curtis' brother! His legs had been crushed by rocks, and he had been living there with his servant, who was just preparing to journey to the nearest civilization for help. The group leaves together, and the struggle across the desert with Curtis' crippled brother is not described much.

At the end, our heroes are pretty well off from the diamonds they have, Quatermain is finishing up his book for his son to send for publication, and preparing to journey to England to visit his friends.

I loved this book. It was adventurous, it had great descriptions and interesting characters, and quite frankly I was pleasantly surprised to find that Quatermain was a fairly ordinary guy. Also, while this had some uncomfortable assumptions about African natives (not surprising, given the time period this was written in), Haggard actually avoided some very horrible tropes. Maybe the "noble native" is just as offensive today, but it's something to see this admiration for them. Our heroes don't pretend to be gods out of condescension (although Ignosi gets a kick out of it), they do it to keep themselves alive.

Foulata is probably the saddest example in the book. Haggard almost seemed to be making a commentary on the mores of the day. Foulata is depicted as beautiful, intelligent, and intensely loyal and caring. Her first lines are almost poetic. Quatermain's problem with her and Good's budding relationship is based on the problems society has with that relationship. I'm not sure how progressive Haggard was in regards to race relations, but at the very least he was showing a tragedy that Foulata was of a different race, and that she thought herself inferior based on that race. (On the other hand, it's telling that the hero of the book rejects the "n" term.)

This was a riveting story, and probably the main reason I've stayed up too late for the past few weeks.

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