The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope
It may not be immediately apparent from the other books I’ve written about on this blog, but I am a complete adventure novel junkie. By this I don’t mean The Da Vinci Code or any of the Bourne books. I’m talking about classic adventure novels: Treasure Island, The Mask of Zorro, Captain Blood, and The Scarlet Pimpernel. I want swashbuckling and heroism and a dash of romance in my adventures far more than I crave technological advances or sneaky spies.
Since there aren’t a terribly large number of adventure novels that fit the bill, I stockpile them so I don’t go through them all at once and am left with nothing more to look forward to. To that end, I have been saving Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda for quite some time. Imagine my reaction, then, when it turned out to be so thoroughly disappointing!
Zenda is the story of an ordinary British citizen (the best start possible to these sorts of stories), Rudolf Rassendyll, who bears a striking resemblance to the king of fictional Ruritania. Confused about what to do with his rather lazy life, Rassendyll sets off to visit Ruritania on a lark and is almost immediately drawn into court intrigue and life-or-death adventures to save the Ruritanian king. Oh yes, and he also manages to fall in love with the king’s cousin/fiancee, the lovely Flavia.
It all sounds good, right? I am sorry to say that it wasn’t terribly so. It was not strictly a bad book because it did keep up the pace and the excitement, but it had so slight a plot that the author’s attempts to draw it out into a full-length novel rather than just the work of a chapter or two made the entire book suffer. Rassendyll’s endless internal monologues about what to do were also quite tiresome—I’m sorry, but any other adventure hero would have sprung into action and done the right thing about twenty pages before Rassendyll had even begun circling figuring out his options. The internal monologue also fails to make him seem like a complex or divided character and only makes him come across as wishy washy.
Not to completely ruin the plot for you, but it’s a The Prince and the Pauper situation and, as becomes clear numerous times before even the half-way point, Rassendyll would make a far better king than the one he is trying to save. Supporting characters are constantly remarking wistfully on his goodness and his stalwartness and how excellent a ruler he would make, all of which is completely obnoxious. It is not necessary to point out in such overblown language that the hero is doing the right thing. He is expected to and having people constantly swooning over his goodness fails to make it any more attractive.
On the whole, I think The Prisoner of Zenda would have made an excellent short story or article in a late-Victorian magazine, but it simply does not do well as a full-length novel. I was horribly disappointed that it did not rise to the level of even The Scarlet Pimpernel, which is a not-amazing-but-at-least-good-fun adventure novel. Zenda, sadly, was neither amazing nor good fun and if your adventure novel is neither of those things, it surely has some real problems.