RogerBW's Blog

The Zenda Vendetta, Simon Hawke 07 December 2022

1985 SF, fourth of its series. After Rudolf Rassendyll gets poisoned on a train in Germany, our heroes have to provide a substitute double for Rudolf V of Ruritania.

This book definitely feels like a re-run of previous highlights, and book four is a little early in a twelve-book series for that: once more Finn Delaney is a perfect double of a fictional historical figure who's died untimely thanks to intervention from the future, with a wife (in this case fiancée) who's unimpressed with the original but falls for Finn. Once more the Temporal Corps has apparently read the start of the novel they're working in but not the ending that would give them useful details that they clearly don't know. Once more the sole female villain uses her sexuality as primary means of manipulation, and there's a strong suggestion that female promiscuity and non-vanilla sexual tastes are reliable signs of being a Bad Person.

But I read and enjoyed these books in a more or less random order as I found them shortly after they came out, and I'm determined to reread them in order.

I know it's a conceit of the series that selected works of fiction are in some way real, but I do find it difficult to care about the Great Historical Significance of Michael of Strelsau's coup attempt in Ruritania, when Ruritania never shows up again in the historical record. It would have helped my suspension of disbelief if someone had said something like "of course it was incorporated into Yugoslavia after WWII, but the Ruritanians were a key part of the revolution in (futurewards-from-1985 date)" or something like that, chaos butterfly blah. Without, naturally, going too far into the basic problem of stories about preventing time-meddling, that if chaotic effects really work then someone just being in the past potentially creates a huge change. But this is something that's simply never touched on, and which to be fair I didn't notice myself first time through…

Anyway. That's not what we're here for; we're here to play tourist in The Prisoner of Zenda. And we do; there's a rather fine multi-sided plot in which our heroes prevail in part because at least three of them can more or less trust each other, while the other factions are mostly individuals who will betray each other at the drop of a hat (or a scented handkerchief). There's also a connection with the Temporal Corps's leader, who after all had a military career before he got promoted to that post, and…

…well, this is a good example of the "Swiss cheese" theory of accidents. A whole lot of improbable things have had to line up to cause this particular villain to exist and be in opposition to the good guys, and if I sometimes found myself saying "oh, come on" I have to grant that all those things are plausible within the context of the story. There's even a gesture of sorts towards possible redemption.

Not a particularly enjoyable book, though it has its moments.

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Previous in series: The Pimpernel Plot | Series: Time Wars | Next in series: The Nautilus Sanction

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