There are some mild spoilers in this post.
This book takes place 3 years after The Prisoner of Zenda and is told from the perspective of Fritz von Tarlenheim. Queen Flavia and Rudolf Rassendyll have not seen each other since the end of the events of the previous book, although, every year, Queen Flavia sends Rassendyll a letter.
This year, there is trouble. The letter is stolen by Rupert of Hentzau's people. If you read the previous book, you'll probably remember that Rupert managed to escape. He was exiled and has, ever since, tried to convince the King to let him come back.
The King hasn't fared too well in the past few years. His imprisonment still weighs on him, and the people closest to him, who should be his best support, see him and can only think "Rassendyll would have made a better king." The King has no idea that his wife is in love with Rassendyll, but he'll certainly know if Rupert can get the Queen's letter to him. That is something Fritz von Tarlenheim and Sapt want to stop at all costs. Rassendyll decides to come out of him self-imposed exile to join them.
The rest of the book is spent trying to get Queen Flavia's letter from Rupert, in order to save her reputation and keep the King from finding out about her secret love. Rassendyll once again impersonates the King. Although Queen Flavia's reputation is indeed saved, the book's ending is tragic.
One of the reasons why I didn't like The Prisoner of Zenda was because I didn't believe that Rassendyll had much reason to go to the lengths he did to save the King and Ruritania. In terms of motivation, I thought Rupert of Hentzau was a much better book. I could believe that Rassendyll would do all that he did to prevent Flavia's jealous husband from reading the love letter she wrote.
I don't know how this book was received at the time it was written. It wouldn't surprise me if it wasn't as popular as the first book, simply because it didn't start off with The Prisoner of Zenda's outrageous setup (an Englishman who looks just like the King of Ruritania is enlisted to pretend to be the King) and because of its tragic ending.
This book isn't completely without outrageousness. Rassendyll still gets to impersonate the King, and this time he needs to do his best to ensure that the King doesn't find out. At one point, Sapt and James, Rassendyll's servant, have to figure out what to do about a horrible mess Rupert leaves behind – their final decision was both fascinating to read and a little horrifying. Although I didn't always like what the characters did in order to help Flavia and Rassendyll, I do think the events in this book were more interesting to read about than the events in The Prisoner of Zenda.
I found the tragic ending to be something of a cop out. Flavia was more a real person in this book than she was in the previous one (in fact, I think Hope did an overall better job of depicting women in this book – or maybe Fritz von Tarlenheim just has a better opinion of women than Rassendyll?), but I still didn't like Rassendyll all that much. Because of that, I didn't really mind that things didn't turn out well for them (although I felt a little bad for Flavia). What I did mind was the feeling that Hope took the easy way out, by never revealing what Rassendyll's final decision was. The tragic ending felt like Hope's way of avoiding having to make a tough choice. As a reader, I found that very annoying.
It took me a bit of time to get used to this book's change in perspective – the first book was from Rassendyll's perspective, while this one was from Fritz von Tarlenheim's perspective. I suppose that should have told me something about how this book was going to end, especially since I think Hope would have had an easier time writing it from Rassendyll's perspective. There were several parts where Hope had to do a bit of stretching, to explain how Fritz could possibly have known the details about what happened, even though he wasn't there.
The perspective change may have been part of the reason why I liked some characters more this time around. Like I said, Flavia came across as more of a person...although I wasn't a fan of her repeated hysterical visions of Rassendyll's death. Had this book been my only exposure to Rassendyll, I might have liked him better, too, since, in Fritz's eyes, Rassendyll was practically perfect and certainly kingly. It wasn't that long ago I read The Prisoner of Zenda, though, and I could still remember my impression of Rassendyll as driftless and overly happy to charge headlong into fights. In this book, Fritz mentions that “Sapt would tell [the King] bluntly that Rudolf did this or that, set this precedent or that, laid down this or the other policy, and that the king could do no better than follow in Rudolf's steps,” but Sapt's memories of Rassendyll don't really gel with mine. I can't remember Rassendyll doing anything other than battling people and falling in love with Flavia.
I was a little annoyed that so many characters judged the King so harshly in comparison to Rassendyll, and I really didn't like the way things turned out for the King. Although I hadn't liked the King much either in the previous book, I felt sorry for him in this one. He was emotionally scarred by the events of the previous book, and Sapt, Fritz, and others recognized that, but that still didn't stop them from finding him to be less than kingly compared to Rassendyll. Is it any wonder that the King was overcome by paranoia at the mere thought of Rassendyll? The Queen sent love letters to Rassendyll behind her husband's back, and the King's supposed right-hand men aided her in this deception. Then the King's very identity was erased and replaced by the end of the book. I may not have liked him much, but I didn't think he deserved all that, and I could understand why he acted the way he did throughout the book.
Although there were some aspects of the book I didn't like, I do think this book was more enjoyable than the previous one, and I would be more likely to recommend it than The Prisoner of Zenda. I still don't consider Anthony Hope one of my better Project Gutenberg finds, though.
My list below is basically just a copy-and-paste from my post about The Prisoner of Zenda, with some of the recommendations removed because I didn't think they applied as much this time around. I couldn't think of additional ones to add.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Murder Princess (anime OVA) - This is another identity-swtiched adventure. 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 Princess Bride (live action movie) - Those who'd like more action, adventure, and romance might want to try 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 - As in Rupert of Hentzau, everything takes place in a fictional European country, and there is court intrigue, royal disguise, and romance. Like Hope's book, this is also available via Project Gutenberg.