Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Republic of the Future: or, Socialism a Reality by Anna Bowman Dodd



If Ayn Rand had a sense of humor
Published in 1887, The Republic of the Future is a dystopian novella that criticizes and satirizes the socialist utopian literature of the late 19th century. It is an epistolary novel, written in the form of a series of seven letters from a Swedish traveler named Wolfgang to a friend named Hannevig. Wolfgang makes a trip to New York City in the year 2050 and reports to his penpal the various wonders he sees there. About a century and half prior to Wolfgang’s journey, America experienced a socialist revolution, and its government, economy, and culture were reorganized accordingly. Wolfgang’s Big Apple travelogue indicates that the brave new world of this would-be utopia isn’t all its cracked up to be.

From the very beginning it’s clear that Dodd has a smart and clever sense of humor. Her unflattering depiction of a socialist society is funny, much in the way that Upton Sinclair’s satirical depictions of capitalism are often quite humorous. As Wolfgang travels to America on a high-speed train through a glass underwater tunnel, he observes liberal reformers attempting to provide moral education to fishes and other aquatic creatures, in hopes that they will stop eating one another. When he gets to New York, he finds it to be a dull and dreary place where all the buildings look alike, as do the people who inhabit them. Due to the relentless emphasis on equality, any form of ostentation is frowned upon, so all architecture takes the form of unadorned cubicles. Even physical attractiveness is shunned, so men and women wear the same nondescript clothes and do their best to look like one another. In a society where no one can be servants, machinery does most of the work, leaving the populace with loads of time on their hands, which they don’t know what to do with because they’re not permitted to excel at anything. The socialist society that Dodd envisions is characterized by a total lack of individuality, thus removing the incentive for any achievement. This depressing state of affairs calls to mind the bleak, draconian dystopias of Ayn Rand’s Anthem or George Orwell’s 1984, but painted with a far more sarcastic brush.

It’s not all fun and games. In Chapters 5 and 6, Dodd takes the topic more seriously as she describes how this socialist regime came into power and examines more thoroughly its flaws and unkept promises. Surprisingly, Dodd not only criticizes socialism but feminism as well, asserting that equality of men and women undermines family values. Whether engaged in satire or censure, Dodd states her case intelligently. The Republic of the Future is neither a slapstick parody nor a crackpot diatribe. Though Dodd obviously exaggerates to make her points, and I agree little with her arguments, I still find her book to be better written than many of the utopian/dystopian novels of her era, either liberal or conservative.

It is interesting that this book actually predates such classic utopias as William Morris’s News from Nowhere and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. The Republic of the Future reads as if it were written in response to such works, but perhaps the opposite is true. Though this dissenting view may not have enjoyed the popularity of those more optimistic visions of the future, readers interested in the politically-tinged literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries will find Dodd’s book a rewarding read.
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Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy



An archetypal hero, but a so-so debut
The Scarlet Pimpernel, an adventure novel by Hungarian-born British author Baroness Emma Orczy, was published in 1905. It is based on her 1903 play of the same title. The story takes place during the French Revolution. The new Republican government of France is rounding up aristocrats to lop off their heads with the guillotine. Much to the chagrin of these bloodthirsty revolutionaries, a mysterious Englishman has been rescuing those destined for the blade and spiriting them off to Britain where their heads remain firmly attached to their necks. The identity of this daring savior is unknown. He is referred to by the name of the flower he uses as his signature—the Scarlet Pimpernel.

The book kicks off to a great start with the titular hero pulling off some ingenious capers that baffle and infuriate his French antagonists. They never know where or when this master of disguise will show up to snatch potential victims from their clutches. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t maintain this high level of excitement, and drags quite a bit in the middle. Those expecting the sort of swashbuckling one finds in the movie versions will be disappointed. The Scarlet Pimpernel doesn’t actually appear much in the book. He is an elusive legend, always off in the wings somewhere. We know of him mostly through references made by other characters. Though written in the third person, we experience the story primarily from the point of view of Marguerite Blakeney, the French-born wife of an English nobleman, who through plot twists better left unsaid is tasked with discovering the secret identity of the Pimpernel. By 1905 standards, Marguerite may have been a strong and independent female protagonist, but by 21st-century standards, she’s still a damsel in distress. By centering the story around her, Orczy leads the narrative into heavy melodrama. Marguerite spends much of the novel fretting over her marriage, her brother, and the whereabouts of the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Of all the literature set in the French Revolution, this is the most overwhelmingly anti-Revolutionary work I’ve seen. It’s not just about saving people from the guillotine; Orczy is advocating the salvation of the very class hierarchy that spawned the conflict in the first place. She barely acknowledges the Republican cause or the concept of democracy. Orczy, an aristocrat herself, thinks France should have retained the British system where gentleman are born gentleman, servants are born servants, peasants are born peasants, and everyone keeps their place. Such feudalistic conservatism could be overlooked if the novel were fun, but it’s not quite fun enough. The identity of the Pimpernel is truly a mystery at first, but soon becomes obvious. Orczy herself reveals the secret about halfway through. The climactic confrontation between the Pimpernel and his French nemesis is far less exciting than the exploits alluded to earlier in the novel. There’s an intended surprise twist that’s painfully obvious, and the Pimpernel’s success hinges on some unbelievably stupid moves on the part of his pursuers.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a great character, but his debut novel is merely good at best. Judging from this book, I prefer the adventures of Pimpernel knockoffs like Johnston McCulley’s Zorro or Bob Kane’s Batman. Orczy wrote a whole series of sequels, and I suspect there’s probably a good story among them somewhere. If nothing else, this novel deserves to be praised for the profound influence it’s had on later generations of heroes. For that, fans of adventure fiction owe Orczy a great debt.
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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Danny Dunn on a Desert Island by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin



Not one of his better adventures
Danny Dunn on a Desert Island, published in 1957, is the second novel in Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin’s series of books about a precocious boy’s scientific adventures. I read these books when I was growing up, and now, thanks to the recently released e-book editions from Wildside Press, I am reading them with my two young sons. They really enjoyed the first book in the series, Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint. This second installment was a little hard for them to get into at first, but eventually they both came to like it. They agreed, however, that the first novel was much better, and I concur.

You would think that the fifty years difference in technology would make it difficult for today’s kids to appreciate Danny’s adventures, but that wasn’t the case with the first book. My boys had no trouble engaging with Danny’s dreams of space flight, no matter how antiquated the speculative methods. In the second book, outdated tech really isn’t an issue because it happens to be the point of the whole story. Danny’s mentor Professor Bullfinch and his surly colleague Dr. Grimes get into an argument about which of them is the more practical scientist. In the heat of the debate, they agree to a “desert-island duel” in which they will voluntarily spend time on a remote island in order to see who can make the best use of primitive technology to improve their situation. The unbelievably permissive parents of Danny and his buddy Joe allow the two boys to accompany the scientists. On their way to the dueling ground, their plane crashes in the ocean, and the four end up marooned for real on an island somewhere near the Galapagos.

The main thrust of the book is that the castaways start out essentially in stone age conditions, and they are forced to use ingenuity and local materials to work their way through progressively more advanced technologies. That’s a difficult concept for a kid to grasp, and even for a grown-up, it’s not as much fun as other Danny Dunn offerings like a spaceship, weather machine, heat ray, or shrinking machine. Though the desert island plane crash sounds rather harsh, Danny and the gang never really seem to be in peril. In fact, the technological contraptions they rig up are not exactly the first things you would think of when it comes to survival—a bathtub and soap, for instance. Apparently, on this island cleanliness is a more urgent need than food or shelter.

The four friends speculate about possible inhabitants on the island, which brings up talk of cannibals. Given the time of publication, I worried about the potential for political incorrectness, but my fears proved unfounded, and it all worked out in the end. The main complaint one can hold against this second Danny Dunn volume is that it’s just not as scientifically wonderful as most of the other books in the series. Despite the lackluster premise, Williams and Abrashkin still manage to craft a fun story. My boys mostly enjoyed the repartee between the characters and laughed out loud at some of the jokes. They’re looking forward to the next installment. Wildside seems to be releasing about two of these books a year. The third and fourth volumes—the Homework Machine and the Weather Machine—are now available in e-book format.
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Monday, May 23, 2016

Stories by English Authors: England by Charles Reade, et al.



Mostly familiar formulae and stale humor
Amelia B. Edwards
The ten-volume Stories by English Authors series was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. It follows the same model as the 1884 series Stories by American Authors and the 1898 series Stories by Foreign Authors. Each book is a showcase of 19th century fiction containing from five to seven short stories or novellas. The volumes in the English series are not numbered, but are subtitled according to the setting of the stories. This volume is subtitled England, for example, because all the stories take place in that country. Other volumes include London, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Africa, the Orient, and the Sea. While I have finished reading the American and Foreign series in their entirety, this is the first volume I have read from the English series.

The collection kicks off to an inauspicious start with the initial entry by Charles Reade, entitled “The Box Tunnel.” A young man bets his friend that he can kiss a pretty woman on the train. Following this terrible start (sexual assault must have been funnier a century ago), the tale proceeds in predictable directions. The whole thing could be told in four sentences; the rest is all flowery rhetoric and self-indulgent slang. Reade aims for clever, but ends up with cloyingly cutesy.

Cuteness is a plague that afflicts many of the selections included here. They go through the motions of tried-and-true story formulas, but with a tongue-in-cheek approach that suggests you’re being set up for a zinger of a surprise ending. More often than not, however, the climax fails to zing or surprise. Anthony Hope’s “The Philosopher in the Apple Orchard” is a predictable love story that positively crawls to its foregone conclusion. In “The Three Strangers,” author Thomas Hardy spends an inordinate amount of time heaping on the rural local color before coming to a finale that the reader saw coming a mile away. On the other hand, “Mr. Lismore and the Widow” is truly an excellent story for about 90% of its length. A young man who is on the verge of bankruptcy is approached with an offer of rescue by the aged widow of a man whose life he once saved. The two characters develope a fascinating relationship, but the story is ruined by its ending, which is anything but predictable because it’s totally ridiculous.

Despite household names like Hope, Hardy, and Collins, the honor of best story in the bunch goes to Amelia B. Edwards, whose “The Four-Fifteen Express” begins with a chance encounter between acquaintances on a train and evolves into a mystery story that would have made a good episode of The Twilight Zone. The remaining two entries are OK. “Minions of the Moon” by F. W. Robinson is a tale of highwaymen terrorizing the 18th-century English countryside. Angelo Lewis’s “The Wrong Black Bag” makes the most blatant attempt at comedy, and for the most part it surprisingly succeeds. It’s about a mild-mannered milquetoast who attempts to live it up while his wife’s away, but his adventure doesn’t quite work out as he planned.

Overall, the stories of this collection feel far too familiar to be compelling. The entry by Edwards is really the only selection that pleasantly surprises. Even with seven brief stories crammed into a relatively brief page count, they tend to feel long-winded, as simplistic story lines are fleshed out with all manner of gratuitous wordplay and antiquated humor. Whether or not this volume is indicative of the quality of the Stories by English Authors series as a whole remains to be seen.

Stories in this collection
The Box Tunnel by Charles Reade 
Minions of the Moon by F. W. Robinson
The Four-Fifteen Express by Amelia B. Edwards 
The Wrong Black Bag by Angelo Lewis 
The Three Strangers by Thomas Hardy 
Mr. Lismore and the Widow by Wilkie Collins 
The Philosopher in the Apple Orchard by Anthony Hope

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Friday, May 20, 2016

Graveyard of Dreams by H. Beam Piper



Home-planet boy makes good
H. Beam Piper’s novelette Graveyard of Dreams was originally published in the February 1958 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine. The story takes place within the fictional universe of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History series, but no prior knowledge of that series is required to read and enjoy this work.

In the 9th century of the Atomic Era (2837 AD), mankind has spread out across the galaxy and colonized other planets. Conn Maxwell graduates from an Earth university and returns to his home planet of Poictesme. As far as interstellar politics and economics go, Poictesme is a bit of a backwater, like an Old Western village on the verge of becoming a ghost town. Once an important strategic military base, the Terran Federation’s forces have since departed, and Poictesme’s main industry is now salvaging the equipment they left behind. The citizenry of Litchfield, Conn’s hometown, has pinned its hopes on the bright young man. He was sent off to college with the specific mission of discovering the key to reviving the stagnating world’s economic prospects. Upon arrival at his home spaceport, his family and friends greet him with a celebration fit for a conquering hero. All this fuss makes Conn terribly uncomfortable, especially since he has returned to his home world the bearer of bad news.

If you’re looking for action and excitement, this is not the Piper story for you. Graveyard of Dreams consists almost entirely of conversations, with none of Piper’s usual futuristic gunplay. The main attraction here is the intricate world that Piper has created and the authenticity of the characters that reside within it. The reader sympathizes with the people of Litchfield in much the same way one would the residents of a town in Pennsylvania after their steel mill has closed. The idea of a whole town resting their hopes of the future on the shoulders of one college student may seem corny to a 21st century audience, but it’s probably not so far-fetched for rural towns of a century ago. In addition to the story of Conn and Litchfield, Piper also lays some foundation for the back story of the Terro-Human Future History timeline. The pseudo-historical details he provides of humanity’s interplanetary diaspora will be of interest to fans of that series.

Piper would eventually develop this story into a novel entitled The Cosmic Computer, published in 1964. I have not read that novel, so I can only judge the shorter story on its own merits. Graveyard of Dreams does feel a bit incomplete, like it was cut off before it finished what it had to say, so it would probably benefit from a lengthier elaboration. Nevertheless, as it stands it’s a well-crafted story. It’s not one of Piper’s most thrilling tales, but fans of Piper’s brand of visionary sci-fi speculation will certainly find this brief work worth their time.
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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Out of Time’s Abyss by Edgar Rice Burroughs



Weakest link in the Caspak series
Out of Time’s Abyss was originally published in the November 1918 issue of the pulp fiction periodical Blue Book Magazine. It is the third novel in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Caspak trilogy, following The Land That Time Forgot and The People That Time Forgot. The three volumes relate the adventures of a group of lost travelers stranded on the lost continent of Caprona, also known as Caspak, where creatures from all stages of evolution coexist side by side. Though the stories of the three books are intertwined, each novel stars a different hero. Out of Time’s Abyss focuses on Bradley, one of the British sailors who arrived on the island in the first book. Although I found the first two volumes only mildly entertaining, I’m a sucker for a trilogy, so I stuck it out until the end. Unfortunately, the final novel is the least interesting of the three.

Bradley is captured by a winged creature called a Wieroo, an intelligent humanoid species unique to Caspak. The Wieroo takes him to the island of Oo-oh, where he is imprisoned within the Wieroo capital city. While in captivity, Bradley gains first-hand experience of Wieroo culture, which places the most brutal and violent killers at the apex of their social, political, and religious hierarchy. He also learns the strange mechanics of how evolution works on Caspak. The previous volumes had hinted at this mysterious secret so thoroughly that the ultimate revelation is anticlimactic. The final explanation is also terribly confusing and leaves many questions unanswered. While engineering his own escape, Bradley discovers that he is not the only human captive in the Wieroo citadel. He frees a woman prisoner named Co-Tan, and together the two seek a means of egress from the island.

Despite the science fiction elements carried over from the first two novels, this book is purely a horror story. The Wieroo are hideous demons more at home in a tale of the supernatural than in a lost world adventure. What I liked about the first two novels was the biological and evolutionary diversity of Caspak. The fictional world that Burroughs created is loaded with possibilities, but here the concept is squandered even more than in the first two volumes. By focusing on the Wieroo, Burroughs abandons the prehistoric subject matter entirely, instead opting for creepy, blood-thirsty villains that could just as easily inhabit another planet. Aren’t tyrannosaurs, pterodactyls, woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers, and Cro-Magnon hunters exciting enough? Why does Burroughs have to resort to bat-winged vampire men? To be fair, there are a few moments of spine-tingling suspense and macabre thrills among the Wieroo, but mostly it’s just the usual repetitive cycle of capture and escape.

The appearance of Co-Tan provides yet another opportunity for a cavewoman romance, which, after the first two books, feels all too familiar. In fact, the grand finale of the series only reinforces how little the three novels differ from one another. Reading the adventures of Tyler, Billings, and Bradley—the three heroes of the three Caspak novels—is a lot like experiencing the same story thrice. The second book, The People That Time Forgot, is the best of the three, but in its foreshadowing of future revelations it makes promises that Out of Time’s Abyss doesn’t keep. If you’re reading this review, it’s probably too late to advise you to avoid the first two installments, but I can warn you that this third and final volume is probably not worth your time.
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Friday, May 13, 2016

The Green Flag and Other Stories of War and Sport by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle



Tales of boxers, buccaneers, and British brigades
I always enjoy diving into one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s non-Sherlock Holmes collections of short stories, because you never know what you’re going to draw from one of his fiction grab bags. The title of this 1900 collection, The Green Flag and Other Stories of War and Sport, held little appeal for me, but once I got into it I was glad to discover that the parameters of “war and sport” are decidedly broad. This volume does contain stories of battlefield combat, and “Sport” is covered by boxing and hunting, but it also includes tales of pirates, diplomats, reporters, stock traders, and even a pair of horror stories. Though the diversity is appreciated, overall the quality of the entries is not remarkable. With the exception of a few standouts, The Green Flag is one of Conan Doyle’s weaker story collections.

The book opens with its worst piece, the title selection. It’s a drab narration of war in North Africa between British and Arabs. There’s a subplot about Irish soldiers rebelling against their English commanders, but it’s basically about gun calibres and troop maneuvers. This collection contains three other stories dealing with British colonialism in Egypt and the Sudan—“The Three Correspondents,” “The Debut of Bimbashi Joyce,” and “A Foreign Office Romance,” all of which are among its worst entries. They tend to have rather simplistic plots with a predictable twist, dressed up with the names of exotic locales and the sights and sounds of the desert. Each makes attempts at clever humor which mostly fall flat.

Conan Doyle finds better success with his seafaring stories. “Captain Sharkey” is a triptych of tales featuring the adventures of the most nefarious pirate in the Caribbean. The title character is a ruthless and violent villain, but, like an Arsène Lupin of the high seas, one can’t help but admire his cleverness and derring-do. These stories are well-crafted with artful plots and well-decked with the trappings of pirate lore. Conan Doyle’s pirate writing ranks right up among the best with the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Another strong entry is “The Striped Chest.” A British ship comes across a vessel adrift. When the captain boards the craft to investigate, he discovers signs of a murder that seems linked to a mysterious antique chest. It’s a nautical mystery that touches on horror. The other aforementioned horror selection is “The New Catacomb,” an Edgar Allen Poe-esque story that also appears in the collection Tales of Terror and Mystery.

Of the sporting stories, “The King of the Foxes” is a mediocre effort about fox hunting. Conan Doyle describes the hunt itself with obvious love for the sport, but he approaches the subject from an odd angle and caps the story off with a predictable ending. “The Croxley Master” is about a medical student who, in order to pay his tuition, agrees to fight the local champion in a boxing match. It’s a good underdog story, and Conan Doyle’s writes about boxing almost as well as Jack London.

Though I’ve mostly discussed the bright spots here, the bads outweigh the goods in this collection. However, a mediocre book by master storyteller Conan Doyle is still better than the best books of most short story authors. This one’s worth a download just to read “Captain Sharkey” and “The Striped Chest.”

Stories in this collection
The Green Flag 
Captain Sharkey 
The Croxley Master 
The Lord of Chateau Noir 
The Striped Chest 
A Shadow Before 
The King of the Foxes 
The Three Correspondents 
The New Catacomb 
The Debut of Bimbashi Joyce 
A Foreign Office Romance

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Monday, May 9, 2016

Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse



Would make a better movie than a book
Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories will be familiar with the detective’s elder, smarter brother Mycroft, who first appeared in the 1893 case “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter.” Though it’s taken over a century, big brother’s finally got his own book. Mycroft Holmes, published in 2015, is the latest novel by retired basketball star and Renaissance man Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with help from screenwriter Anna Waterhouse.

This novel is a prequel to Conan Doyle’s tales, as it takes place when Sherlock is a college student. Mycroft is a 23-year-old secretary to England’s Secretary of War. Though he shares his brother’s powers of deduction, Mycroft has a much less fiery temperament and looks forward to a respectable life of wedded bliss, a diplomat’s income, and a country estate. The two great loves of his life are his fiancée Georgiana and a good cigar. Given the latter proclivity, it’s only natural that his best friend should be his tobacco dealer, Cyrus Douglas, a black man from Trinidad. Coincidentally, Georgiana also hails from Trinidad, where her family runs a sugar plantation. Reports arrive of children being murdered on the island, in a grisly manner that leads the superstitious locals to suspect folkloric demons are responsible. Concerned for their homes and families, Georgiana and Douglas book passage on a ship to the Caribbean, with Mycroft accompanying to support his two closest companions and provide investigative assistance.

Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse have done their historical research and have well stocked the setting with period detail. The prose does not attempt to reproduce Conan Doyle’s style, but rather employs a more modern cinema-influenced voice. Still, the authors do a good job of thinking in a Victorian mindset, keeping the reader involved in the story’s time and place. Douglas’s African descent gives the authors the opportunity to deliberately explore the racial attitudes of the time. Black and White are not the only races represented in the multicultural cast. At times the political correctness feels anachronistic. The story might have been more interesting if Mycroft had some prejudices to overcome, rather than entering the story with an enlightened 21st-century liberal outlook.

In a typical Holmes adventure, the mystery is established very early in the narrative, and the detective spends the rest of the book solving it. Here, half the book has gone by before Mycroft and Douglas realize what their mission is. The cover art is a spoiler, revealing the crime that’s being perpetrated to the reader, but Mycroft and Douglas don’t figure it out until two-thirds of the way through the book. One could charitably argue that this delay allows for more character development. The book’s strength is its two lead characters and the friendship between them. The plot, however, is rather plodding and gets less interesting as it goes along. In the end, the mystery is resolved through a combination of unrealistic action sequences and boring bureaucracy.

This book definitely seems to have been written with a movie deal in mind. It includes martial arts sequences, explosions, and a chase on horseback through the streets of old London, all described in shot-by-shot visual detail. It’s as if it’s been calculated to tap into the Robert Downey Jr.-as-Sherlock audience, rather than the Benedict Cumberbatch set. Idris Elba is a shoo-in to play Douglas, while some up-and-coming blonde Brit will be cast as Mycroft. It might actually make a very entertaining movie, but as a mystery novel, it’s just so-so.
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Friday, May 6, 2016

The Curse of Capistrano (a.k.a. The Mark of Zorro) by Johnston McCulley



Cowboy swashbuckler superhero
In the golden age of pulp fiction, author Johnston McCulley was known for a number of recurring characters, among them The Spider, Thubway Tham, The Black Star, and the Crimson Clown, all of whom have since faded into relative obscurity. One of his creations, however, endures to this day: Zorro. The swashbuckling caballero’s debut, The Curse of Capistrano, was originally serialized in 1919 issues of the magazine All-Story Weekly. Soon after, the novel was adapted into the movie The Mark of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks. In 1924, the novel was published in book form for the first time, with the title changed to match that of the film.

The story takes place in the early 19th century in California, before it became a U.S. state and was still a part of Mexico. An oppressive Spanish governor reigns over the land, stepping on the rights of the Indian peasants, the Franciscan friars, and even the Spanish landholders. One man dares to stand up against injustice—a masked rider known by the name of Zorro, a mysterious master of horse and blade who has been known to carve his initial into the flesh of those who oppose him. Like a Mexican Robin Hood, Zorro is revered as a folk hero by many and scorned as a criminal by some. The governor’s soldiers are constantly trying to capture and kill him, placing the hero in a series of perilous predicaments from which there seemingly can be no escape.

Zorro is a creation of pure genius, a brilliant chimera of Western gunfighters, French swordsmen like the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Three Musketeers, and the benevolent bandits who show up in folk tales around the world. In his depiction of the colonial missions, ranches, and Indian pueblos of Old California, McCulley creates a vivid and romantic atmosphere. He develops the chivalry of the caballero into a sort of mythology, which I suspect has greatly influenced subsequent depictions of the “Latin lover” in American pop culture.

It’s a little troublesome that Zorro has no qualms about slashing the governor’s soldiers to ribbons, when, like their civilian counterparts, they are also likely victims of their master’s oppressive rule. However, every such adventure story needs its bad guys, so there’s no point crying over spilt blood. For today’s reader, the book’s main fault is its familiarity. If you’ve ever seen a Zorro movie­—whether the Douglas Fairbanks, Tyrone Power, or Antonio Banderas incarnations—you know where the story is heading and where it’s going to end. The resolution of each scene is a foregone conclusion. Still, McCulley throws in enough surprises to keep the reader thoroughly entertained. The action sequences are exquisitely rendered and choreographed for maximum suspense. The identity of the man behind the mask is quite obvious from Chapter 1, but McCulley doesn’t officially reveal the swashbuckler’s secret until the penultimate chapter. I highly doubt McCulley intended the ending to be a surprise. Rather, I think he keeps playing the Clark Kent/Superman game throughout the book simply to provide some comic amusement.

Almost a century after it was written, McCulley’s prose shows no signs of the antiquated clunkiness one frequently finds in vintage pulp fiction. 21st-century readers will still find much to enjoy in this classic swashbuckling thriller. The Curse of Capistrano is a timeless adventure story, and Zorro is a hero for the ages.
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