Monday, 11 February 2013

Review: The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Full title: The Prisoner of Zenda (novel) 
Writer: Anthony Hope
First published: 1894
Available: digitally on Project Gutenberg; in print on Amazon 

Quote: "For my part, if a man needs be a knave, I would have him a debonair knave." 

The Prisoner of Zenda is a classic story taking place in the fictional German state "Ruritania"–a word which has come to be a generic term for "small fictional country in Europe which saved the writer the trouble of too much research", so well-known was Anthony Hope's story once. I should probably state up front that I love fictional places; countries, cities, stately homes, the occasional uninhabited island... You name it. That I would sooner or later have to visit Ruritania was obviously inevitable.

The basic story is what I like to call the "Two Peas In A Pod"-plot. You've encountered it before–in Mark Twain's The Prince and The Pauper, Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask, the film Dave... You've surely encountered it in some form before. The idea is that you have two people so incredibly alike that they can switch places and none will be the wiser. In this case, the reason is a common ancestor and obviously very dominant genes, and the result is that Rudolf Rassendyll and King Rudolf of Ruritania look exactly the same. Due to sinister plots and intrigues, Rassendyll is forced to take the king's place while he is imprisoned in the castle of Zenda. This leads to romantic entanglements when the king's future wife and cosuin Flavia suddenly finds herself liking Rudolf a lot more than she ever did before, and swashbuckling adventure as the king must be saved and put safely back on the throne.

Rassendyll isn't a bad sort of character – he's reasonably likeable and not insufferably goody-two-shoes. He's not splendidly charismatic either – the major star of the book is without a doubt the utterly despicable and dashingly handsome villain Rupert of Henzau who kills and kisses with the same flair and splendid lack of remorse. Flavia is nice and not a nitwit at all; she doesn't actually require saving even once, mostly because she behaves perfectly reasonably (take note, modern writers!). There are sword-fights and moat-swimming and the occasional witty verbal exchange so I can't complain. I also find the description of Rudolf's life as a royal fairly realistic in the peculiar mix of power and circumscription.

The plot is obviously over the top ridiculous and the book is clearly not written yesterday, but it mostly shows in a rather charming way. Vintage, rather than mouldy. I especially love the very period realistic touches, such as when Rudolf goes on a  swimming mission at night and describes his dress as: "I was covered with a large cloak, and under this I wore a warm, tight-fitting woollen jersey, a pair of knickerbockers, thick stockings, and light canvas shoes. I had rubbed myself with oil, and I carried a large flask of whisky." Take that, Jason Bourne!

To sum up; a classic swashbuckling adventure that still entertains after all these years and is a must for lovers of the genre.

I gave it 4/5 on Goodreads.

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