[Originally published on 3.12.2008 on my old readthisyet.blogspot.com site]
The Prisoner of Zenda follows the story of Rudolf Rassendyll, an english nobleman who intrigued by a family legend travels to the faraway (and completely fictional) state of Ruritania. Upon arriving there he discovers that he is a distant cousin of the Ruritanian royal family and an exact lookalike of the soon to be crowned King Rudolf V. Predictably there’s all sorts of dastardly plots afoot in Ruritania and soon Rudolf finds himself impersonating the King who has been kidnapped by his traitorous cousin Black Michael and his henchmen.
The plot is to be honest a very long way from being original, its a sort of “Prince and the Pauper” with added swordfights, but it does get more complicated than that with Black Michaels wronged lover and his dispicable henchman Rupert of Hentzau (who gives his name to the sequel) both providing plot twists and stopping the narrative from becoming entirely formulaic.
The best thing about the book though, has to be the sheer grin factor of it. It really is a pretty perfect no frills rollicking good swashbuckler. It fits the boys own adventure box pretty well. I mean, whats not to like about swordfights.
It does sometimes go a little further than a standard paint by numbers adventure book though, the characters are actually all pretty interesting and involving, and the conflict between duty and personal interest, one which becomes a major theme of the book, is kept fairly balanced to the point where sometimes its not as black and white as you might expect about which is the right path the characters should take.
To criticize it though, at times it does seem a bit aged, it was published in 1894 and sometimes it shows. The King is a drunken irresponsible ruler, Black Michael a champion of the poor and underpriveledged, and the Kings fiance falls in love with Rudolf Rassendyll, it all seems that saving the King would be almost a bad thing, but the Hero’s decide it is their duty to save him. A idea that can make less sense to a modern audience.
All in all, its a fantastic adventure story that is one of the classics of the genre. You really should read it, because what book couldnt be made better with swordfights