Monday, June 19, 2017

Book Review - King Solomon's Mines

The 19th century had a boom of English adventure novels. By the end of the century it had really hit a great stride which also brought high expectations. As with any genre there were plenty of books that have faded from common reading while others still invoke imagery and seem familiar even to people who have never read them. To me, King Solomon's Mines is one of those novels that always felt like a stalwart example of English Adventure fiction so I was a little surprised when people saw me reading it and had little or no knowledge of this novel or the adventures of Allan Quartermain. Those who recognized Quartermain largely only did so thanks to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie that came out a few years ago. Now that I've finished reading King Solomon's Mines I must say that I'm a little sad that it's slipped under the radar. Maybe I'm just in the wrong reading circles. *grin*

The basic story (minor spoilers of the first chapters' setup) introduces us to adventurer and big game hunter Allan Quartermain. Allan isn't old by our modern sense but in terms of his career he is beyond his standard life expectancy and is expected to either die on safari or to retire somewhere. While thinking about this, he is approached by an English aristocrat (Sir Henry Curtis) and his friend (Captain Good) who want to hire him as a guide and protector to lead them north across the wilds of Africa in search of the lost brother of Sir Henry. Quartermain is wary especially when they tell him that Sir Henry's brother was lost searching for King Solomon's Mines...the mythical mines used by the Biblical king to fund his nation and build his famous Temple. It takes some discussion and a promise of significant wealth (not only for Allan but also for his son) to finally convince Quartermain to help. They gather supplies and natives to help them and they're on their way. As they get ready to depart, another native approaches them having overheard their general destination and he asks to accompany them as a servant. They agree and the small party sets off.

The novel is written in first person as a sort of journal or letter from Allan to anyone who may be interested in the story. The narrator Quartermain often apologizes for his lack of style and sophistication as well as for possible errors either in terms of form or in terms of scientific/geographic accuracy. The edition I read included annotations by the editor but I also found it interesting that there were included annotations that were supposed to have been written by Quartermain to further explain or clarify some point of interest. This added narrative element was a fun addition not just to add details to the story but also to provide more insight into the character of Quartermain. I especially enjoyed the side commentary that Quartermain-as-narrator added to the story with his thoughts about the situations he encounters.

The story arc of the novel starts out fairly straightforward and almost feels like a travelogue at points. We get numerous details about the nature of the country, the preparations and supplies used and a lot of information about the wildlife and the indigenous people of southern/central Africa. As with other novels of the time, the pacing begins slow and gradually builds to a moderate pace but never really gets to a breakneck speed. As such it may receive lackluster response from the short-attention-span readers of the 21st century. And yet, the details and the imagery are so immersive that the sensation of being on an African adventure might help draw a reader into the story until the greater intrigue starts.

In addition to the great details about the country and the trek during the first portion of the book, Haggard does a great job fleshing out his main characters. To some degree they are certainly archetypes and can sometimes blend together as generic adventurers. Still, they have their own unique quirks that make them memorable and also help dictate some interesting plot points throughout the book. As part of the character development, there's also a little bit of intrigue and mystery that helps foreshadow future events.

After traveling through the desert for many days and many chapters, our adventurers struggle across the mountains and discover an unknown tribe of natives. At this point, the nature of the novel changes a bit as it moves from man-vs-nature to man-vs-man and to some extent it feels like a different novel. The pacing also seems to pick up a little bit partly due to the intrigue that comes of the addition of new characters to interact with. At first I wondered if this feeling was due to the novel being written as a serial but I was surprised to find that not only was it not serialized but it was written very quickly (in less than 6 months) and then struggled to find a publisher.

Without giving away the plot and the intrigue I can say that there are 2-3 main story paths in the book that intertwine and work their way to a conclusion. Even though I fully expected a happy, successful ending I must admit that there were moments of suspense when I anticipated some potential twists and turns that might spoil the happy ending. Some aspects felt a little predictable (probably due more to copycat ideas in the past century+ rather than due to lack of innovation by Haggard) but many of the twists and revelations did feel fresh and unique.

The large amount of geographical descriptions of Africa can feel a little dense at times but when coupled with Quartermain's natural and conversational narrative style the story seemed to flow along lightly. This makes it very accessible to most readers. The Imperialistic ideas and the racial attitudes of the era factor into the events but the book still maintains a bit of progressive mentality. Quartermain feels disillusioned by some of the Imperial ideals of England and while he still has his own prejudices he does view the native Africans as more human and worthy of respect than many of his contemporaries may have done.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. It took a few chapters to get started and then maintained a slow burn as the plot pace increased before reaching its apex of adventure and suspense. The adventure and intrigue was a lot of fun and really drew me in. I enjoyed the characters a lot and had fun with the quirks and nuances they brought to the adventure. I really enjoyed the writing style and the level of detail included. I'm interested to read Haggard's other Quartermain novels to learn more about his character and the adventures that lead up to this novel.

While novels like Tarzan, The Jungle Books and Treasure Island are more well-known adventures of the time, I definitely feel like more people should seek out Haggard and get familiar with the adventure of King Solomon's Mines.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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