Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain

It’s fair to say that I read a good number of books children’s books. Having kids of my own, I like to pilfer their shelves from time to time. In our house, we like to stock “the classics” as a sort of quality guarantee. Since children’s books became a genre there have been writers who have tried to cash in on the children’s market as a way to make a quick buck with little effort. Reading “the classics” means that you get the best books from every era without having to wade through the formulaic twaddle, most of which has mercifully been forgotten over the years.
It’s a different story with modern children’s books. Picking up a new children’s book means taking a chance on wasting your time, and the modern children’s book publishing machine loves tried and true formulas. After the success of Harry Potter we got books about schools for magical/mythological/specially talented kids who are sorted into groups based on their personalities. After The Hunger Games took off, we’ve have had m…

King Solomon's Mines

King Solomon’s Mines is a classic adventure story that went on to spawn fourteen sequels and make an indelible mark on the adventure genre (Indiana Jones would not exist but for Allan Quatermain). In the interest of full disclosure, however, I have to admit that my first experience with adventurer Allan Quatermain was in the film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen* and that until I picked up this book a couple of months ago, I was under the mistaken impression that his name was Quartermain. Ah well, so much for my pretensions to cultural literacy.

The book begins with Quatermain, an experienced big game hunter in Africa, meeting the brawny Sir Henry Curtis and the slightly less brawny and more rotund Captain Good on a ship voyage. Sir Henry is surprised to meet Quatermain, whom he only knew through his lawyers as the last man to see his brother Neville alive. After hearing Sir Henry’s story, he is traveling in Africa in search of his missing brother, Quatermain reveals that Neville had said that he was looking for the fabled mines of King Solomon. Quatermain also happens to have a map to the mines given to him by a dying Portuguese man and purportedly drawn by an explorer hundreds of years ago.

Quatermain agrees to lead an expedition in search of King Solomon’s Mines in the hopes of finding Sir Henry’s brother, on the condition that Sir Henry include in his will a stipend for Quatermain’s son to pay his way through medical school and set him up in practice in London. Quatermain does not expect to survive the expedition, but as he has outlived most of his fellow explorers, he reasons that it’s about his time to go and that by going he can leave a legacy for his son. While preparing for the expedition, a native named Umbopa, who will become very important later in the story, begs to be allowed to accompany them. Not to give anything away, but mountains are crossed, an ancient civilization discovered, a coup d’état staged, and treasure found.

Quatermain surprised me as a protagonist as he is not particularly brave, strong or well educated. He is certainly wiry and tough, though, and has lived a much longer life than most big game hunters due to his knack for staying alive in dangerous situations. The one extraordinary thing about him is his marksmanship, which is unrivaled. It is partly the candor of his narration that makes the story enjoyable. He is cheerfully cynical about a romantic view of adventuring, and also doesn’t mind giving his views about social structures in Africa; he is an immensely likeable person and is a very down-to-earth man to have for the hero in an adventure novel.

The novel is a good balance of action, mystery and humor, much like many modern adventure films that follow the same formula. Though the writing is not quite at the level of John Buchan’s adventures (this book was probably a partial inspiration for Buchan’s Prester John) it is still exciting and should keep you riveted and turning pages.

5/5 stars

*Note: I find it impossible not to picture Sean Connery as Allan Quatermain. Brilliant casting decision on the part of the directors of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.