I was under the false impression that this was the second Allan Quatermain novel, but it’s actually an entirely new set of characters. It’s a novel that does scratch that same itch, however, as it’s still a story of the Lost World genre in which a group of Englishmen travel to Africa (this time landing somewhere on the eastern side of the continent) to find a hidden civilization. That is simplifying it a little unfairly, but the two books do have a similar feel.
A professor at Cambridge, Horace Holly, was left a young ward, Leo Vincey, by a dying friend with a fantastical claim that links his family to a mysterious event in Africa. When Leo reaches the age of 25, he’s given a chest with more information concerning his heritage and the mystery. The two, with their manservant, then travel to Africa to investigate. Upon arriving, they are quickly captured, and then spend the rest of the novel with the tribesmen as the full story unravels.
Much like King Solomon’s Mines, I found the novel more intriguing before the adventurers arrived at their location, although this did hold my interest longer. I enjoy the travelogue aspect of old adventure stories. At first glance, She-who-must-be-obeyed, the woman the book was named after, looked to be an incredibly interesting character, but she was a bit of a disappointment. She has thousands of years worth of knowledge, and supernatural abilities, and yet she spent the entire time mourning the loss of her love. I suppose that’s a vaguely romantic idea, but the result was that she failed to be a god among men and instead she became the worst crazy ex-girlfriend ever.
The adventure was exciting at times, and I thought some of the characters were great. Horace Holly struck me as a more rational Professor Challenger, similar in looks but less pompous. She-who-must-be-obeyed, while still a let down, did create a very eerie and tense atmosphere. Her dynamic with Holly was captivating. Billali, the leader of the tribesmen, had quite a few little hilarious remarks.
“Ah, so,” he answered. “Thou seest, my son, here there is a custom that if a stranger comes into this country he may be slain by ‘the pot,’ and eaten.”
“It is hospitality turned upside down,” I answered feebly. “In our country we entertain a stranger, and give him food to eat. Here ye eat him, and are entertained.”
“It is a custom,” he answered, with a shrug.
A bit of a side note, but Haggard was super into beards. He was hipster-level in love with beards. Every beard was long, beautiful, and magnificent. Whenever Billali was mentioned, we got an update on his white beard, always being stroked or dragged across something. My favourite beard quote, of which there were many options to choose from, was:
[…] since we had started from England I had allowed my naturally luxuriant beard to grow at its own sweet will.
I too have allowed my naturally luxuriant beard to grow at its own sweet will, and I plan to use this phrase as often as I can. This novel is beard porn, and that is not a complaint.
Haggard wrote a sequel to this, nearly twenty years after the original, which does pique my curiosity. With both novels I felt like I should have loved them more than I did, and was left a bit unsatisfied, but I did still enjoy them, so I’ll likely keep an eye out for both the sequel to this and the next Allan Quartermain novel. The next She novel, I believe, follows Leo rather than Horace, which might not be as interesting. In this he is young and boring (and beardless), so I’m hoping by the next book he will be older and more interesting (and have allowed his naturally luxuriant beard to grow at its own sweet will).
If anyone has read these, I’d be interested to hear if you thought his later books got better or worse.