I decided to read this because I remembered a bit in Kaoru Mori's Emma where Vivi read it and got all excited about it.
Rudolph knows he is distantly related to the King of Ruritania (there's a whole long story about it - I had trouble keeping everything straight), but it's still a shock when he encounters the King and discovers that they look almost like twins. This turns out to come in handy when the King is drugged right before his coronation. If the King doesn't make it to his coronation, Michael, his villainous half-brother, can claim the throne in his stead, so Rudolph is asked to temporarily impersonate the King.
Michael has the real King kidnapped and kept prisoner in a castle in the small town of Zenda. The few people who know what Michael has done can't call him out without revealing that the man who actually attended the coronation was an impostor. Michael can't say anything about the "King" being a fake, because then he'd have to admit to drugging and kidnapping the real King.
Rudolph is doing his best to try to help rescue the King, but, while pretending to be the King, he falls in love with Princess Flavia, the King's betrothed. Princess Flavia, who had previously not been much interested in the King, now begins to fall in love with him, not realizing that she is falling for his impostor. Michael is in love with Princess Flavia and is not pleased that she favors Rudolph more. And, as if this love polygon weren't complicated enough, Antoinette de Mauban, a woman Rudolph originally met while on the train to Ruritania, is Michael's mistress. She is not at all pleased that Michael loves Princess Flavia more than he does her.
This all comes to a dramatic conclusion in which Ruritania and its King are saved, Michael is defeated, his traitorous henchman Rupert of Hentzau escapes (and gets a sequel), and Princess Flavia and Rudolph must tragically separate for the good of Ruritania.
At first, I enjoyed this book. I could barely follow all the long paragraphs about the connection between Rudolph and the Ruritanian royal family, and Rudolph himself was a bit too driftless for my taste, but I got excited when more hints of the “impostor” storyline I knew was coming began to turn up. When Rudolph and the King finally met, I settled down for an adventure I was sure was going to be fun.
The problem was, it wasn't as fun as I expected. Rudolph seemed to love rushing into battles, the dashing hero doing his part to avenge fallen comrades and save Ruritania and the King from Black Michael. Unfortunately, all I could think was, “Why is he risking his life? And is the risk even worth it?”
Rudolph is not a Ruritanian. He had barely even met the King before he was suddenly enlisted to become the impostor King. I suppose I could see why he might have initially agreed. At first, all he was really agreeing to was being the King at the coronation – it was a short-term thing, and probably not too difficult. After the King was kidnapped, though, continuing to be the impostor King meant he was risking his life for a country that wasn't really his and for a man he hardly even knew. I'm guessing this was supposed to be admirable, dashing, and heroic. I just thought it was a bit stupid, in large part because I couldn't see why anyone, much less a near stranger, would want to risk their life for this particular king.
If I remember right, several Ruritanians sang Duke Michael's praises and commented that, although they felt like they knew him, they had barely even seen the King. In temperament, the King seemed similar to Rudolph: lacking in ambition and a sense of responsibility, but completely willing to take advantage of the perks his position gives him. In the small portion of the book in which the King is free, healthy, and conscious, he is having fun and drinking. He doesn't seem to realize (or, if he does, care) that his people don't necessarily like him. Yes, I know that people don't have to like their monarchs, but if a monarch with a rival wishes to stay alive and in power for long, it would probably help to have popular opinion on his side.
Several of the King's men made comments along the lines of, “Rudolph, you would have made a better king” - so, even the King's own men would have preferred someone else. The only thing that saved him was that they, at least, did not feel that Michael was the better option. I couldn't really see how Rudolph made any better of a king than the real King, though – the only vaguely kingly skills he exhibited were his ability to make Princess Flavia fall in love with him and his ability to dash fearlessly into thrilling battles without being killed.
Overall, the characters were weak. Like I said, I didn't particularly like Rudolph or the King – I have a feeling that Hope intended for readers to root for them and be on their side, but I didn't think that either of them would make good kings, unless we're talking figureheads. Although Black Michael seemed to have popular support, I didn't find him to be a more sympathetic character, what with drugging and imprisoning his half-brother and coldly dumping his mistress for Princess Flavia. Princess Flavia might as well have been a piece of cardboard for all the personality she exhibited. The only character that intrigued me even a little was Madame de Mauban. Unfortunately, the book was written from Rudolph's perspective, and he had, at best, a somewhat condescending view of women, which meant that he explained away Madame de Mauban's behavior as an example of feminine irrationality.
It's a good thing I kind of disliked Rudolph and found Princess Flavia to be completely uninteresting, or I might have been angrier about how things ended. I'm guessing that Hope meant to show how noble Flavia and Rudolph were, and how concerned they were with doing their duty (meaning that Rudolph has supposedly grown a bit since the beginning of the book?). While the ending Hope chose was probably more realistic than if Flavia had run away with Rudolph, I thought the execution of that ending was gag-worthy. Rudolph and Flavia had known each other for three months. In that time, Rudolph supposedly came to love Flavia so much that he, a 29-year-old male who previously seemed to enjoy chasing after women, decided to live out the rest of his life clutching his chaste, tragic love to his breast. Flavia of course had to do her duty and marry the King of Ruritania – so, what, for the rest of her life she'll only coldly tolerate the King because he's not Rudolph? Sounds like fun.
Overall, I wasn't a huge fan of this book. I enjoyed some of the action-filled parts as I was reading them, but the more I think about the book now that I've finished it, the less I like it. I have downloaded the sequel, Rupert of Hentzau, but I don't know when I'll get around to reading it. I can only hope that Hope has Rupert really work the whole mustache-twirling dashing villain thing, because then I might have more fun. Part of me hopes that Madame de Mauban will show up in the sequel (supposedly, Rupert loves her), but I have a feeling she'd be better in my mind than Hope could ever have written her.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Murder Princess (anime OVA) - Those who'd like another identity-switching adventure might want to try this. In this anime set in a fantasy world, a princess manages to escape after witnessing her father's death. During her escape, she comes across a female bounty hunter, and something happens that causes the two of them to switch bodies. The princess manages to convince the bounty hunter to help her retake her family's castle. You can read my post on this if you'd like to know more about it.
- The 10th Kingdom (live action TV miniseries); The 10th Kingdom (book) by Kathryn Wesley - This is another one in which a royal is replaced by an impostor. Like The Prisoner of Zenda, there is action and romance (although I much prefer the romance in this to the romance in The Prisoner of Zenda). This takes place both in contemporary New York and in a parallel fantasy world inhabited by fairy tale characters and beings. After the fantasy world's Prince Wendell is forced by his evil stepmother to switch bodies with a dog, he manages to escape to our world. Anxious to get his body back and save his kingdom from his stepmother, he enlists the help of a young woman and her father. This started off as a TV miniseries, but there's also a novelization, which I've written about.
- Emma (manga) by Kaoru Mori; Emma: A Victorian Romance (anime TV series) - The series that gave me the urge to try The Prisoner of Zenda in the first place (I think The Prisoner of Zenda is only mentioned in the manga, not the anime). In this series, Emma, a maid, and William, a member of the gentry, fall in love.
- The Princess Bride (live action movie) - Those who'd like more action, adventure, and romance might want to try this. It's been ages since I last saw this, but, if I remember right, some of the things I said about The Prisoner of Zenda could apply to this. I remember disliking Buttercup for the way she treated Westley and not understanding why he loved her anyway, and I don't think the characters are any more developed than Hope's. That said, this movie is a ton of fun.
- Graustark (book) by George Barr McCutcheon - Whatever I happen to think of The Prisoner of Zenda, at the time it was written it was so popular it inspired a whole new genre, of which the Graustark novels are an example (this knowledge is courtesy of Wikipedia). As in The Prisoner of Zenda, everything takes place in a fictional European country, and there is court intrigue, royal disguise, and romance. I'll have to try this sometime - maybe McCutcheon will appeal to me more than Hope. Like Hope's book, this is also available via Project Gutenberg.