Saturday, November 26, 2011

King Solomon’s Mines (Book Review)

If you have watched the movie League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (or read the comic it was based on by Allen Moore), then you know about Allan Quatermain, who was a prominent figure in both the comic and movie. He was played by Sean Connery, which says something about how powerful a figure this hunter and adventurer is to be played by such a legendary actor. However, where did Mr. Quatermain first appear? Most of the characters in Moore’s League are literary icons, so it makes sense that one of the main protagonists also comes from a book. Well, today, I am going to review an 1885 story by H. Rider Haggard, which is one of Quatermain’s early appearances. The novel is a lovely adventure called King Solomon’s Mines!

Writing style
When I saw that this book was published in 1885, I admittedly thought what most people of my generation think and that is: this book is going to be boring and slow because it was published 126 years ago. However, upon actually reading this book, I can happily say it is far from boring. It is a wonderful adventure. I mean, the plot ran very smoothly. It only took me a month to read it (and that is my usual time it takes to read a novel considering I have a second book for assigned reading).

Based on my three part writing style system, I would say this book is classified in the first section: the classic writing section. This is really well written and just really good. Haggard gave some great metaphors in his work, such as when he compares the color of sunset to a “blush like a cheek of a girl”. This book has some of the key elements of a good adventure which any writer must include if they want to have a good adventure-thriller (think of the Indiana Jones theme when reading this), for example, the story must have:
  • One important character with two or more foil characters
  • A couple deaths if the protagonists are in a group larger than three
  • A cold and heartless antagonist leader (or leaders, depending on their length)
  • A treasure which the protagonist(s) seek
  • At least one place in the book for the villain to do something evil to a unnamed random character to show what they are capable of
  • Two or more battles between the heroes and the villains (one to get the ball rolling, and another being the final battle. More such battles can be added as well, though those can some times be unnecessary)
One element which was not really touched on was the love interest. However, being in Africa, it makes sense we don’t meet someone who connects to Quatermain.

The Story
There are actually two stories in this novel. One story is of Allan Quatermain and his comrades in their search for a long lost brother and King Solomon’s Mines. As I mentioned, the story element of treasure is an important part of an adventure story (whether it’s a movie or book). King Solomon’s Mines are like Eldorado in that it has tones of tales about it enormous supply of diamonds, but no one has ever gone there and lived long enough to enjoy the shiny rocks. At one point when the group actually finds the Mines (not much of a spoiler btw), Quatermain comments, “Monte Cristo is a fool to us,” which is, if you know the tale of Monte Cristo, quite a statement.

The other story is that of their mysterious African guide named Umbopa. I won’t say anything about it, because that would spoil the story, but it’s cool.

The Antagonists
If the treasures hidden from the rays of the sun within King Solomon’s Mines are seemingly infinite, then so is the number of antagonists in this story. Death is an important enemy throughout the novel from the beginning to the end. In fact, at one point there is even a giant statue of a skeleton with a spear which the narrator (Quatermain) refers to as death (which is just a great visual that makes me want to see any movie adaptations just for that scene).

My favorite antagonist from this story would have to be the very old creature named Gagool. She is just fun because she very old and creepy. Throughout the novel, many characters state that they can not remember her being young, so her actual age remains a mystery. Gagool does not help matters by stating that she might or might not be the same woman named Gagool who tricked Quatermain’s treasure-seeking predecessors 10 generations before. She’s described almost like an animal and she has this horrible laugh which “always sent a shiver down [Quatermain’s] back, and which for quite a while took enthuseasium out of [the group].”

Attitude toward Africans
One thing which I am always concerned about when I read older books is their attitude toward specific groups of people. Africans were my main concern given the setting of the book. Many books might have portrayed Africans in not the best of ways in this age of literature, so you can understand my concern. Therefore, I am glad to say this concern is unfounded.  Umbopa is in almost an equal to his European companions. He is not portrayed as a savage and Mr. Haggard (rest his soul) did not discriminate against race when he placed savagery into one of his characters.

Allan Quatermain: Haggard vs. League version
I’ve seen two different versions of Allan Quatermain: the version of him from this book and the one portrayed in 1999 in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (well, actually three if you count the movie as being separate from the comic). In the comic, he is portrayed as the second in compound of the team, which is a bit of a twist on this appearance here in the book where he was the leader of the group (just like the movie adaptation of the League, but then he is portrayed by Sean Connery, so that makes total sense).  At the beginning of the League versions we see a very different Quatermain. In the comic, we see a drug-induced Quatermain. If Haggard’s stories are cannon in the League stories, then it means something happened in one of his other stories in the Quatermain series which drove the adventurer to such a low.

This is a nice book. I wish more people would ignore the publishing date of the book and read this book, because I know of a lot of people who would enjoy this book. This is a very well written story and had me chuckling at several points (not because of cheesyness as there was none, but because of the interactions between Quatermain’s group of white men and the Africans who had not seen white men before). Just an enjoyable read. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes adventure.

Quote / Picture of Author
“The truth is like a sharp spear which flies home and fails not,”
--H. Rider Haggard (as Ignosi, King Solomon’s Mines pg 169)

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