Professor Holly and his ward Leo follow the clues on a fragment of ancient pottery to discover a magical lost kingdom in deepest Africa, where a magical queen has waited for thousands of years to meet Leo and fulfill her romantic destiny. This is a great work of Victorian fantasy, and doesn't get enough attention nowadays. Professor Holly, a linguistics professor at Cambridge, is named the guardian of his dying friend's small son, Leo, and given a locked box that is to be opened only after Leo turns 25 years old. Professor Holly raises Leo and they develop a deep and close friendship, and on Leo's 25th birthday they open the locked box. Inside is an ancient fragment of pottery called the Sherd of Amenartas, which echoes a fantastical story Leo's father once told Professor Holly about a lost and ancient world in eastern Africa. There is a map on the potsherd, and detailed instructions on how to find the magical kingdom it comes from. Professor Holly and Leo set out on a ship to Egypt, from where they will trek inland, but a storm in the Mediterranean wrecks their ship near the coast of Egypt. None survive except for Professor Holly, Leo, and Captain Mahomed, a strong and faithful.
They trek south slowly, hitching rides along the way, regaining their strength and supplies in Cairo, and then forging on ahead. The journey turns more dangerous as they travel deep into the jungle, facing perilous weather conditions as well as trying to survive the insects, snakes, and predators in the wild. One night their campfire is surrounded by tall, wild-looking African men dressed unlike anything the travelers have ever seen, and they are captured and taken to their village. The men speak with Professor Holly in a dialect of ancient Arabic, which he knows, and they are taken under the protection of Chief Billali, who tells them that the tribes have lived quietly for thousands of years, serving She or "Hiya". They are called the Amahagger people, and their tribes control the surrounding land. They do not seem surprised by Professor Holly and Leo, saying that "Hiya" warned them of the white men's coming. "Hiya" is a white sorceress-queen who rules them from her fiery volcano home. Professor Holly and Leo have to protect Mahomed, however, as the Amahagger do not see the ship captain as a white man and mean him ill. As they stay with the tribe they rest and recover from their travel, and an Amahagger woman named Ustane falls in love with Leo and claims him for her husband.
One evening after several repeated failed hunts, the Amahagger decide that the gods need a sacrifice, and decide to cannibalize Mahomed. However Professor Holly and Leo intervene and fight off the Amahaggar, though Mahomed dies in the process and Leo is so injured that Ustane carries him away to safety. Only the intervention of Chief Billali saves the travelers and Ustane from death. However, it is clearly not safe for them to remain among the Amahagger, and Chief Billali decides it is time to take them to see the white queen. They travel for days on camels through the desert, until they arrive at a ruined old city in the mountains. They appear to be near Libya. It is an ancient city called Kor, older than ancient Egypt, and it exists now only as a maze of tunnels an catacombs under an old and inactive volcano. The only people who live their now are the queen, called Ayesha, and her handmaidens. It is eerily quiet, but the queen herself is so magically and fantastically beautiful that Holly falls under her spell instantly. Leo, still unconscious and wrapped in bandages, does not see her, and Ustane takes him to a healing room.
Ayesha reveals that she is an ancient daughter of the desert, a young girl in an ancient Arab civilization, and when Ayesha learned witchcraft and sorcery, she journeyed to Kor and found the Pillar of Life, the fire inside the Kor volcano. She obtained the power of immortality from the fire of the volcano, and then met an Egyptian priestess, Amenartas, and her Greek lover Kallikrates. Ayesha fell in love with Kallikrates and banished Amenartas after Kallikrates refused to kill his Egyptian love in exchange for immortality. Amenartas was pregnant with Kallikrates' son when she left, a line that would eventually result in Leo. Meanwhile Kallikrates died and left Ayesha alone, and now she awaits the reincarnation of Kallikrates.
Professor Holly can't objectively assess Ayesha because he is under her spell, but the reader can see how scary and creepy she is. When she goes to heal Leo and sees his face, she is overcome with delight and declares that he is the reincarnation of Kallikrates that she has been waiting for, and kills Ustane. When she revives Leo, he sees her face and falls under her spell as well, and she persuades him that walking through the Pillar of Life will make him immortal like her. Both Professor Holly and Leo have misgivings, but Ayesha's bewitching beauty overrides their doubts, and she leads them deep into the catacombs to bathe in the spiritual fire, the Pillar of Life that burns inside the volcano. When Leo hesitates to step in, his sense of self-preservation kicking in at last, Ayesha steps into the fire to show him it is harmless - but returning to the fire for the first time in thousands of years has a reverse effect on her. She twists and screams in the flame as she loses her immortality and dies, but not before rapidly growing old first. Leo and Professor Holly snap out of it, and flee out of Kor as the catacombs an tunnels begin to crumble and cave in behind them. They save Chief Billali and ride out of Kor, Ayesha's promise to return to Leo echoing in their ears.
Best part of story, including ending:
I liked that this was clearly a forerunner for a lot of the fantasy that came after.
Best scene in story:
I liked the scene with the tribals when one of the women try to claim Professor Holly too and he hastily backs away and trips - it was cute.
Opinion about the main character:
Professor Holly is not the object of romantic attraction (except in a comic relief way once, as detailed in this review), he is actually a character who had to hone his brains to make up for his lack of good looks, and I found that interesting and refreshing.
Holly is a lonely man, working at the University of Cambridge. He has but one friend, who is dying and makes him guardian of his only son, Leo. Holly has to promise him that when Leo turns twenty, he'll show him the contents of a metal box which will be delivered to him if he excepts the guardianship.
Leo grows up under the care of Holly and when he turns twenty, they open the box. It contains Leo's family history, which starts in Ancient Greece. He discovers that one of his ancestors got killed by a powerful sorceress, and the box also contains a calling for revenge. So he and Holly travel to Africa where, according to the directions in the box, they should find this sorceress.
There, they are captured by a local tribe, who serve a queen they call She-who-must-be-obeyed or She. They discover this is actually the immortal and beautiful sorceress. They both fall in love with her, but she falls only for Leo. She wants them to become immortal too and takes them to the source of her magic. There, they have to escape or remain in the service of this cruel queen.
The review of this Book prepared by Taranis