The Prisoner of Zenda. What a book! I still remember the day I got it from the library--an ugly old large-print hardcover--and found myself unable to tear myself away, it was so exciting and wonderful. Even if you've never heard of the book, you know the plot: English gentleman of leisure Rudolf Rassendyll travels to the small Balkan kingdom of Ruritania shortly before the coronation of its new king, Rudolf V. There's a family legend that says the Rassendylls have royal Ruritanian blood, and indeed when our hero gets to that country it becomes obvious that he and the new king are identical cousins! Tickled by this happenstance, the King invites Rudolf for a cousinly feast on the eve of his coronation...and then mysteriously disappears, spirited away by his scheming half-brother, Black Michael! The King's two loyal aides, Colonel Sapt and Count Fritz von Tarlenheim, swear that Black Michael shall never sit on the throne of Ruritania...and the only way to stop him is to put Rudolf Rassendyll there instead, pretending to be the real King! In disguise, our hero must outwit Michael and his six sinister henchmen, romance the real King's fiancee, escape multiple assassination attempts, and find a way to rescue the King from the sinister Castle Zenda!
Pardon the exclamation marks. They seemed necessary.
This book is wonderful. What with the danger, romance, intrigue, galloping through the moonlight, swimming moats, getting stabbed, and falling prey to the lovely Princess Flavia, our Rudolf manages to have a tolerably amusing time. It's an exhilarating adventure, practically perfect in every way. The characters simply ooze a dramatic sense of honour and duty:
Colonel Sapt: If that door is opened while we're away, you're not to be alive to tell about it.
Fritz von Tarlenheim: I need no schooling, Colonel.
And of course there's Rupert of Hentzau, Black Michael's right hand and chief backstabber. No other villain in the canon of Western Literature manages to be evil with this much shameless panache.
The book ends on a bittersweet note, with a sequel hook, of which more later. It may be imperfect, but whenever anyone says 'Vintage swashbuckler' this is the first book I think of: The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope, adventure novel extraordinaire.