fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsHeart of the World by H. Rider HaggardHeart of the World by H. Rider Haggard

Although I had previously read and hugely enjoyed no fewer than 40 novels by H. Rider Haggard, I yet felt a trifle nervous before beginning the author’s Heart of the World. I had recently finished Haggard’s truly excellent novel of 1893, Montezuma’s Daughter — a novel that deals with the downfall of the Aztec empire in the early 16th century — and was concerned that Heart of the World, which I knew to be still another story dealing with the Aztecs, would necessarily be repetitive. As it turns out, however, I needn’t have worried. Despite the Aztec backdrop, the two novels are as dissimilar as can be; whereas the first deals with an Englishman witnessing the Indian conflicts with Cortes from 1519 – 1521 and the fall of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, Heart of the World takes place a good three centuries later. Written by Haggard from November 1893 – February 1894, the novel was serialized in “Pearson’s Weekly” and later published in book form in March 1896. The novel was Haggard’s 18th, out of an eventual 58, and following as it did three of the author’s greatest creations — Nada the Lily, Montezuma’s Daughter and The People of the Mist — demonstrated that H. Rider was very much near the top of his game during this period, a full decade after coming out with the phenomenally popular King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quatermain and She.

Heart of the World
takes the form of a manuscript written by the Mexican Indian Don Ignatio, close to the end of his 62 years. In it, he tells of the great adventure that he’d had in the mid-19th century, alongside the English miner James Strickland. The lineal descendant of Guatemoc, last of the Aztec emperors, Ignatio has dedicated his life to the fulfillment of a dream: the unification of the Mexican peoples and the ouster of the Spanish influence. Ultimately, the pair comes in contact with Zibalbay, head priest and ruler of the People of the Heart — who dwell in the legendary Lost City of Gold — along with his beautiful daughter, Maya. As it turns out, Zibalbay’s goals are the same as Ignatio’s, and so the four travel to the lost city, the titular Heart of the World, encountering many hardships on the trail. But once arrived at the legendary island city (which the reader infers is somewhere beyond the Guatemalan border), their troubles are only beginning, as politics and a love triangle go a long way in destroying their cherished plans….

Longtime readers of Haggard will not be surprised to learn what an incredibly action-packed and exciting book Heart of the World is. Before our adventurers even arrive at the lost city, Haggard has treated us to a mine cave-in, a gun battle with a band of killers, the mother of all storms at sea, a shipwreck (a shipwreck had already been featured in Haggard’s 1888 novel Mr. Meeson’s Will and in Montezuma’s Daughter, and would also figure largely in later novels such as 1906’s Benita and 1929’s Mary of Marion Isle), a swordfight, a run-in with nasty father and son smugglers, a battle on top of a ruined jungle pyramid, an almost lethal snakebite, and a trek across both desert and mountains. Haggard throws an enormous lot into his book to please the reader, and his four main characters are an interesting bunch. Ignatio, our narrator, is especially likable, being at once humble, shrewd, and dedicated to his cause, while Strickland comes across as a typically good-hearted, brave and handsome Englishman; the sort that the author loved to depict, and very much in the Leo Vincey mold, from She. Zibalbay strongly resembles many former and future white-bearded patriarch figures in the Haggard pantheon (I am thinking most especially of Oro, in the 1919 novel When the World Shook), while Maya must be added to the very long list of Haggardian women who have sacrificed all for love. (It is remarkable what a lengthy roster of strong female characters Haggard managed to amass over the course of his career; I can think of no author, offhand, who even comes close.) The author treats his readers to detailed descriptions of his Heart of the World, both physical descriptions and details about the people’s lives, customs and religion, and it is all fairly fascinating stuff. As always, Haggard’s ruminations on various matters creep into his book; his thoughts regarding death, as expressed via Ignatio, are very moving indeed. (Haggard had lost his son, “Jock,” two years before writing this book.) Heart of the World may be a touch less exciting than Montezuma’s Daughter, a bit less crammed with incident, and lacks a strong central villain on the order of the earlier book’s Juan de Garcia (although there ARE minor rogues and badmen aplenty). Still, it is a highly satisfying creation, sure to provide many nights of excitement; a true page-turner, and all that. Ignatio, before setting down his tale, tells us “I fear that my skill in writing is small.” Humble as always, the old Indian was wrong in this regard. It turns out that he could spin a tale alongside the best of them!


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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