This is the second of Haggard’s novels I have read in the last three weeks – too many, I say! And, I have been unwell, so this book has taken me a lot longer to read than it should have, meaning that by the end of it, I was very, very sick and tired of it. My bad.
She is Ayesha, a mysterious woman who rules over her kingdom through the fear of her magical powers, and the fact that she is said to be immortal. When three proper English gentlemen – Horace, Leo and Job – are shipwrecked onto the coast of her lands, conveniently fulfilling their own quest to avenge the death of one of Leo’s ancient ancestors, they unwittingly become involved in her mysterious and magical ways, and realise that the quest they set out upon may be far more difficult than they had ever previously imagined.
I think the best way to talk about this book is in reference to King Solomon’s Mines. While that novel is fairly simplistic in both its plot and philosophy, She is considerably more complex. No surprise there, considering that She was written several years later, when Haggard had become far more popular with the public. This is not to say, however, that this novel is a piece of high literature, right up there with the best. It isn’t.
But, it is a lot better than King Solomon’s Mines which filled me with anger every time I read Haggard’s opinions on women or the African people. While these ideas are also here in She, they are toned down a bit, especially the casual racism, which makes for a less painful read. Haggard seems to have a new appreciation for women in this novel, and there are far more positive female leads in here than before. Ustane, for example, the ‘savage’ wife of Leo, is given almost a personality, and even some dialogue that rises above grunts and snorts. Big if Haggard, really. And Ayesha herself is perhaps the most complex character Haggard has ever written. For me, at least, she elicited some sympathy, as a woman who has lived for two thousand years, tortured by the memories of what she had done to her lover. She has become this kind of sarcastic bitch, who doesn’t take any nonsense, and is particular calm-headed about everything.
For an adventure novel, however, Haggard does waste a lot of time trying to be all philosophical, spending pages and pages of dialogue trying to have ‘deep’ arguments about the philosophy of love and history. Move on, man! He also spends far too much time describing everything around his characters (hello, Tolkien), and I must confess to having occasionally skimmed through quite a few of them. I think both of these contribute to what I can only call a pacing problem, and between the occasional set-piece, we have lots and lots of either travelling, philosophising or, in Leo’s case, sleeping. Seriously, a lot of time sleeping.
So, is She worth reading? I think if I were going to pick between the two Haggard novels, then I would go with this one. It seems to be more mature, more complex, and more thoughtful. This does get it into a bit of trouble sometimes, when Haggard goes all philosophical, but the adventure bits are still good, and really, we all love to read a novel about a bitchy immortal woman who doesn’t suffer fools. At all.