According to The Source of All Truth, Wikipedia, H. Rider Haggard bet his brother that he, H. Rider, could write a novel half as good as Treasure Island, published two years before in 1883. I’m not sure he reached that lower bar. Sure, the book may have been a bestseller back in 1885, but the book really isn't even half as good as Treasure Island.
If Treasure Island was a giant leap forward in Victorian adventure novels, King Solomon's Mines was a few steps back. Following a common thread of the novels I’ve been reviewing this week, King Solomon’s Mines (KSM) is a travel/adventure book. Allan Quatermain, an English adventurer living in South Africa, is commissioned by Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good. They want Quatermain’s help in locating Curtis’s brother, last seen hunting for the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon, the son of King David.
Here’s where the waves of my preconceived notions going into the novel broke against the hard rock of the novel itself. Before I read this book, the name Allan Quatermain held a somewhat mythical place in my imagination. I remember Richard Chamberlain playing him in some movie I never saw but, mostly, I know Quatermain as played by Sean Connery in the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s Sean Friggin’ Connery so Quatermain was a bad ass. Yeah, well, not in the book. He’s almost a coward and calls himself one a couple of times. That jarred me and, frankly, started to lend itself to a general lack of interest and caring about what happened to him. Besides, the novel was written in first person so you know Quatermain lives. How dull.
The party travels north toward the desert and then nearly dies of thirst. Really? No way. Then they survive and the entire story comes to a screeching halt as Quatermain, Curtis, Good, and the African guide Umbopa, become embroiled in the inner squabbles of a lost African tribe. When I say screeching halt, I mean it. Haggard wrote something like five to seven chapters of the whites trying to help the blacks. Oh yeah, the white chauvinism is rampant in this novel, as you’d expect of a novel published during the high Victorian era. And, lo and behold, Umbopa just so happens to be the true heir to the throne. You saw that one coming, didn’t you? I’ll admit the war scenes were thrilling, filled with typical British stiff-upper-lipness (made that one up) and bravery, even for the coward Quatermain. But that couldn't overcome the boring, political parts.
The one thing KSM has going for it is an over arching story: the hunt for the mines. That’s something missing from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but a trait Robert Louis Stevenson does better in Treasure Island. The ultimate goal that’s achievable is what makes the chapters where the journey stops infuriating. Sure, they have to get out of their predicament but seven chapters worth? Nah.
KSM is the first of the “Lost World” novels, a mantle taken up by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ruyard Kipling, HP Lovecraft (didn’t know that one), and Michael Crichton (in Congo). As a first novel of its kind, it’s not horrible. It’s just that many of its successors did it better.
One of the books I’m now interested in reading is the graphic novel of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which features Quatermain and Captain Nemo. I want to see how Alan Moore used these two characters and how, or if, he changed them.
Like 20,000 Leagues, I’m glad I’ve read King Solomon’s Mines but I’m not hankering to start in on the sequels. Anyone read them? Are they worth it?
P.S. this is your last chance to offer a prediction about my forgotten book tomorrow. The only clue you have so far is that it was published after this novel.