The Prisoner of Zenda

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 European country because he's curious about its connection to an old family scandal. He meets the new king, 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: swordfights, romance, double-crosses, a scene-stealing villain, some snappy dialogue, and more swordfights. There's a 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 many of his victories come from being brave, smart, or good at stabbing things, the bad guys still might have won if they hadn't been so sure Rudolf wanted the crown for himself.

Since Rudolf's 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 reasons for their concerns. 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 wound up the only way they could.

I just scored an old copy with a set of lovely 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.

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