The Prisoner of Zenda is one of those books that I thought I knew all about long before I read it. (I was totally wrong.) Even if the title doesn’t ring a bell, it’s been adapted enough times that you might be familiar with the basics of the story.
The hero, Rudolf Rassendyll, travels to a small, isolated European country because he’s curious about its connection to an old family scandal. He meets the new king, who’s a distant cousin, and the two are nearly identical. When the king gets poisoned the night before the coronation, Rudolf takes his place to keep the throne from going to a popular rival. And then there are hijinks.
“God save the King!”
Old Sapt’s mouth wrinkled into a smile.
“God save ’em both!” he whispered.
It’s got everything I look for in an adventure novel: sword fights, romance, double-crosses, a scene-stealing villain, snappy dialogue, and more sword fights. There’s some depth to it too, though. Rudolf faces down most of the temptations of ruling a nation, but another character is forced to remind him that he isn’t the only one with a duty to fulfill. And while he overcomes a lot of obstacles by being brave, smart, or good at stabbing things, the bad guys still might have won if they hadn’t completely misjudged Rudolf’s motives.
Since Rudolf is a first-person protagonist, we get this great balance of bravado and vulnerability from him. He’s risking a lot for a man he just met, and some of the king’s critics have valid concerns about his rule. But Rudolf begins the book by telling his sister in law that “to a man of spirit… opportunities are duties.” He’s the only person with a chance at making things right, and if he fails, the princess he’s fallen for will be forced to marry a traitor.
I can’t say a thing about the ending without spoiling it, although to me it felt like things wrapped up in the only way they could.
I have a beautiful old copy with illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson, but you can get The Prisoner of Zenda for free in various ebook formats.
The sequel is a little trickier, but I’m totally in love with that one too. I’ll explain why once I’ve had a chance to read it again.