King Solomon’s Mines

by Henry Rider Haggard (1885)
Classic action-adventure thriller

Published in 1885, King Solomon’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard is one of the greatest action-adventure novels ever written. I’m not the only person who thinks so. The book was included in International Thriller Writers’ critical anthology Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, on the best thrillers of all time.

I loved, loved, loved King Solomon’s Mines. If you enjoy thrillers of any kind, you must read this book. No excuses: it’s relatively short and e-versions are available for free.

King Solomon’s Mines is the archetypal action-adventure story. Fans of Indiana Jones will clearly recognize the lasting impact this game-changing book had on the thriller genre. The story is set in South Africa in the late 1800s, a land the author personally knew well, having lived there for many years as one of countless British working in the colonial outposts of Africa and Asia. The real South Africa of the time was exotic enough to be a superb thriller setting. Rider Haggard took it one step further, setting his characters on a quest into the remote interior of Africa on a dual quest for the lost treasure of King Solomon, and a lost brother who previously searching for it.

The story is narrated by Allan Quatermain, a middle-aged elephant hunter, which we learn is an oxymoron because few men in such employ survive to middle age. He is a first-rate protagonist and first-person narrator because details like that reveal much about him that he himself would keep hidden. For example, he repeatedly insists that he is a coward, yet his actions, and the way others treat him, suggest otherwise. Quatermain is hired by a British gentleman and a Royal Navy officer to lead them on a quest to find the gentleman’s lost brother.

(By the way, this book is the first appearance of Allan Quatermain who goes on to many more adventures, including the present-day League of Extraordinary Gentlemen superhero tales.)

Haggard’s novels, of which this is his first and most famous, are perfect escapist fiction for men and older boys. Quatermain’s world is a man’s world, where men do manly things (like hunt and shave and make war), and honor is more important than comfort or safety. There are no tender orphans here, no adolescent yearnings–only dangerous wild animals, harsh landscapes, noble warriors, and a quest for buried treasure. The sensibility of the book is, one might say, so 19th century. And yet the story is timeless, an epic quest and adventure that suggests to me a very abbreviated Lord of the Rings. Rider Haggard’s prose is tight and evocative, his characters rich, and the suspense unbearable.  The reader is absolutely certain something bad is about to happen but can’t wait to find out what it is–and how our heroes will get out of it.

I should mention that this is a novel written by and about British men in colonial Africa, which may worry some readers about the book’s political correctness. While there are certainly moments of haughty superiority by the white men, in my opinion King Solomon’s Mines is not racist. Unlike some other adventure tales that put white men in Africa (such as the original versions of Doctor Dolittle which are rife with offensive, denigrating racial stereotypes), Rider Haggard portrays his African characters with the same care and depth as his English ones. The story’s greatest heroes and greatest villains are black Africans.

{Incidentally, women exist in this story only as the two female archetypes, wicked old witch and young maiden in distress. But unless you’ve banned Snow White from your home, this shouldn’t be a problem. The witch is one of the BEST characters ever, and the most memorable character in the book.}

Highly recommend this book for reluctant reader boys (middle grades and up). The adventures of Allan Quatermain should draw them into the story. If the language is too difficult for them, perhaps a parent can read the book out loud. Be warned that there is some gore in this tale (which I suppose is part of the attraction for boys).

Needless to say, this book is NOT a science thriller (though there is an important plot element related to predicting astronomic events…)

Other books Henry Rider Haggard: She, Allan Quatermain, and many more.

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