Somewhere in Africa, a tiny, primitive tribe, the Amahaggers, live secretly amongst the debris of a lost Egyptian civilization, ruled by the beautiful semi-goddess Ayesha, or She-who-must-be-obeyed. Ludwig Horace Holly, a Cambridge academic, is reluctantly drawn into plans for a voyage in search of this legendary queen. With his adopted son, Leo, he sets out on a brave journey, following a trail of clues. Shipwrecked and captured by cannibals, their voyage soon turns into a nightmare. This masterpiece of suspense and adventure, by the author of King Solomon's Mines, contains some of the most sensual, gently erotic passages in 19th-century literature.
One of the classics of 19th-century imperialist literature, She tells the story of Cambridge academic Horace Holly's discovery of a lost African kingdom while on a journey with his ward, Leo Vincey. Narrator Bill Homewood has a big, sonorous voice that encompasses the scope and thrills of this adventure tale as Holly and Vincey encounter a primitive tribe of natives ruled by a mysterious white queen, the demi-goddess Ayesha, or She-who-must-be-obeyed. Along with his masterful use of tempo to create tension and suspense, Homewood lures listeners with his velvety characterization of the powerful Ayesha, evoking a sense of danger and sensuality that will leave listeners' pulses racing.
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Haggard was a much better writer than the snobs gave him credit for. The dialogue is realistic - the language pure Victorian. The narrator of this selection is good and separates character's voices well. She is high adventure which misses only in the lack of detail about the trip home. It's a wonderful tale probably better heard than read. Most fantasy, science fiction, and adventure tales have lifted plot lines, characters, and even locales, from She. That alone makes it a must read.
She is easily better than almost any adventure story written since.
For its Victorian era, H. Rider Haggard's classic novel of romantic, lost world adventure She (1887) has some surprisingly open-minded views on marriage customs (morality being "a matter of latitude") and a few kinky hints of sex, including an erotic kiss and a nude woman bathing in a pillar of flame. Being a Victorian novel, it also contains a fair amount of racism, sexism, classism, and colonialism. But Haggard transcends his era. His creation of She-who-must-be-obeyed, AKA Ayesha or She, is complex: beautiful, powerful, irresistible, amoral, selfish, serpentine, undying, and loving, she could make the most inveterate misogynist swoon at her feet. And although Haggard's play with reincarnation is a little dodgy, his evocation of expanses of time (including what it would be like to live for thousands of years), his examination of the limits of human understanding (ever seeking and failing to remove the veil concealing the face of Truth), and his exploration of love (including parental, fraternal, and romantic in intense situations) are all compelling.
The novel begins slowly, as its "editor" (a Haggard-like writer of African adventures) recounts how he became acquainted with the simian H. Horace Holly and the Apollonian Leo Vincey so as to one day find himself in possession of a manuscript written by Holly about his and Vincey's extraordinary three-week experience with She-who-must-be-obeyed. And that manuscript itself begins with a fair amount of explanation by Holly as to how he became the guardian of the younger man.
It develops that Leo is descended from a line beginning 2,200 years ago with a Greek priest called Kallikrates, that back then Kallikrates and his Egyptian wife became lost in Africa and fell into the clutches of an undying white queen--She--ruling a savage civilization in some volcanic mountains, and that because She fell in love with Kallikrates but was spurned by him she killed him, leaving his pregnant widow alive to escape to bear their son in Greece. Ever since, each scion of the line of Vincey has been told about that murder to be encouraged to seek revenge on She.
That backstory established, the men soon find themselves in She's domain, in which she rules a race of light-skinned and Arabic-speaking cannibals who live in the extensive mausoleums honeycombed into an extinct volcano by an extinct ancient civilization, and the novel moves into higher gear. If the story is still sometimes slowed by long stretches of dialogue and monologue, it is also enlivened by passages of grandeur, beauty, horror, and suspense, as when Holly describes an ocean sunrise, a giant Ethiopian's face carved into a mountain peak, a subterranean pyramid of human skeletons, an embalmed human torch dance, a winged statue of the goddess of Truth, and an abyssal chasm with a slender spur of rock nearly reaching across it. Moreover, Haggard has Holly interpret the stunning phenomena he witnesses so as to illuminate aspects of the human condition like mortality and love. Here is an example of a sublime moment in Haggard's novel:
"It was a wonderful sight to see the full moon looking down on the ruined fane of Kôr. It was a wonderful thing to think for how many thousands of years the dead orb above and the dead city below had gazed thus upon each other, and in the utter solitude of space poured forth each to each the tale of their lost life and long-departed glory. The white light fell, and minute by minute the quiet shadows crept across the grass-grown courts like the spirits of old priests haunting the habitations of their worship—the white light fell, and the long shadows grew till the beauty and grandeur of each scene and the untamed majesty of its present Death seemed to sink into our very souls, and speak more loudly than the shouts of armies concerning the pomp and splendour that the grave had swallowed, and even memory had forgotten."
Phenomena like the savage Amahagger residing in the mausoleums of a superior but extinct ancient race and using embalmed corpses as fuel and embalming slabs as dinner tables, are darkly wonderful.
Reader Bill Homewood has an appealingly deliberate, rich, and articulate voice for Holly's narration, as well as an unsettling pseudo Arabic one for She's. He enhances the reading experience.
The influence of She: A History of Adventure appears in the work of later writers, like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, J. R. R. Tolkien, and even C. S. Lewis, e.g., the ageless and amoral witch-queen, the long forgotten empire and its ruins, the discovery by a white hero of a lost world or civilization, the power of love to transcend time, and the use of first person "manuscripts" and different languages to increase verisimilitude. . . She is worth reading.