Friday, June 15, 2012

Classic Fantasy: She by H. Rider Haggard

Series: She #1
Publisher: Penguin
Date: 1886 (2007)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout/for the Victorian Celebration
Pages: 384
Reading time: four days

From the back cover: Leo Vincey's father has left him a mysterious casket in his will, which can only be opened on his twenty-fifth birthday. When the day arrives, Leo unlocks it to discover ancient scrolls, a fragment of pottery marked with strange inscriptions - and a letter. Its contents reveal a mystery that Leo must travel all the way to Africa to solve, taking him on an adventure beyond his wildest imaginings. Sailing across stormy seas to Zanzibar, Leo endures shipwreck, fever and cannibal attacks, before coming face to face with Ayesha, She-who-must-be-obeyed: the beautiful, tyrannical ruler of a lost civilization. She has been waiting hundreds of years for the true descendant of her dead lover to arrive. And arrive he does - with terrifying consequences...

My review: She started off as a strong adventure story. I breezed through the first half of the book, never losing interest in the plot. The mysterious situation passed down from Vincey to his son was intriguing, and I couldn't wait to get to the "lost world" aspect of the novel.

But, once the characters reached the lost world, my interest died. I slogged through the last half of the book, having to almost force myself to try to read a certain number of pages a day. I just didn't find the story that interesting any more. For an adventure tale, there was a lot of dialogue and superfluous musings; the plot was slowed because people would occasionally take four long paragraphs to say what could easily have been explained in a few quick sentences. It felt like some things were overly dramatic while others were left relatively unexplained. The book just didn't hold my interest.

The characters themselves were an interesting assortment. It irritated me a little bit that Holly, Leo's guardian and the narrator, dominates the novel so much. He has an aura of superiority, and anyone not like him - middle-aged, white, presumably Anglican, fairly upper-crust, male - is portrayed as naive or inept or otherwise rather irritating. Meanwhile, I found it fun to compare Ayesha and her belief in "reincarnated love" to more contemporary themes. Ayesha is like the evil stepmother/witch in recent fairytale retellings; her altered sense of morality allows her actions to be simultaneously evil yet somewhat understandable. The doomed 'love' between her and Leo is similar to the popular theme of star-crossed lovers who reappear throughout the generations - think how may Romeo and Juliet-inspired novels have popped up recently.

Reminds me of: The Moon Pool by A. Merritt (1919), which I actually enjoyed much more than She.


  1. I've heard of She, but I've had trouble with every "lost world" novel I've read so far. It still sounds like it might be worth checking out, though. Ayesha sounds like an awesome character!

    1. She has actually been the only lost world book I've had "trouble" with, though it was really just because I lost interest. The Moon Pool, The Lost World (by Arthur Conan Doyle), and Lost Horizon are all ones that I've really enjoyed.

  2. It is a wonderful adventure, written in a very clear and straightforward manner with all the beautiful description the passages entails. It keeps your interest throughtout the book and it lead me to its sequel. It has opened, once more for me, the interest to read books written about this time (1890's) as I find them lighthearted, and exciting in addition to how beautiful and well written they are.