A remote fantastical kingdom far from Europe's chancelleries of power...
An unpopular monarch on the eve of his coronation...
A ruling class of plotters and would-be usurpers...
...and a gentleman adventurer on holiday.
No, not Ruritania in the nineteenth century, but the United Kingdom in the twenty-first. My new book is both a sequel to and a contemporary inversion of Anthony Hope's classic of 1894, The Prisoner of Zenda. In the original, an English gentleman on vacation is called upon to stand in for his lookalike, the King of Ruritania, at his coronation. Over a century later, a Ruritanian on vacation in London is called upon to return the favour and stand in for an Englishman in an absurd fantastical kingdom where Brexit never quite happened...
The thought arose, in that first year of Covid, that these days life in Eastern European capitals looks far more normal than in the west (and indeed, in my tourist experience, is far more normal). And so an audio entertainment was born, and (after some revision) a brand new hardback and a Kindle edition: a sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda set in England in the day after tomorrow. Even if you've never read Sir Anthony's novel, or heard my serialisation of it, I think most readers are familiar with the basic conceit - and, as with Hope's tale, it is a story of honour and duty in a very foreign land, peopled not by the nobles and peasants of Ruritania but by an unprincipled political class, scheming globalists, a visiting American president, etc.
I was delighted by the reaction of Mark Steyn Club members to the audio version. Nancy Hawkes wrote from Virginia:
I am a first quarter founding member of the MSC and I don't comment often, but I couldn't keep silent about this tale. Where to begin? I save Tales for Our Time for road trips so I can listen for long stretches. The Prisoner of Windsor was amazing. I just finished it tonight. I don't know which I liked better - the rollicking, funny, sad, sobering story, or the comical, serious, heart-warming, heart-rending reading of it.
There were parts that had me crying with laughter (Rudy at the gay pride parade - good thing I wasn't going 70+mph at that point!) and tearing up with sadness over the loss of love of country (Rudy trying to instill some backbone in the King). Mark, thank you for this. If only the wider world could hear/read it and understand...
Thank you, Nancy. No sooner had the audio book wrapped up than we had many queries about whether I would be committing it to hard covers. Well, yes, I am: it's out this Tuesday - and, if you order from the SteynOnline bookstore, I'm already hard at work personally autographing copies, and getting them in the mail.
I don't account it a work of genius, but, aside from anything else, the "Doctor Davos" character medicating (and over-medicating) national leaders seems to be pretty prescient about where our planet is headed. Until this month's hardback edition, it was a mere bonus feature for our Mark Steyn Club members, but it seeped just a wee bit out into the wider world courtesy of a review over at Good Reads by Jerry Stratton:
I'm disappointed that this is not available as a printed book. After listening to it, there's clearly a lot to be gleaned from reading it leisurely rather than listening to it... The deposed [actually dispossessed] king of Ruritania acquires an invite to the coronation of the next king of England (Arthur, of course) and finds himself lost in an England where Ruritanian content farmers control the plumbing market. Or at least, where everyone thinks Ruritanian content farmers are the new Jews, and Ruritanian plumbers are doing the jobs English plumbers won't do.
Steyn has a great handle on the adventure style of the late nineteenth century—and in the form of people like Anthony Hope and Alexander Dumas, who knew how to make their wordy texts both compelling and fast-moving despite the wordiness. Updating such a style for modern readers is very difficult to do, but also very rewarding...
As it happens, that was a fun thing to take a crack at. I have a great admiration for the narrative energy of nineteenth-century adventure writers, and it's hugely enjoyable to concoct a sword fight or a horseback chase through Windsor Great Park that's also a meditation on the evils of the British Home Office or the "joys" of "diversity". Mr Stratton says that the book is "extraordinarily funny, on an incredibly layered level":
At one point, the King of Ruritania, who makes his living as a celebrity impersonator, is impersonating the Prime Minister well enough to be the Prime Minister, which inflames a mob that hates the Prime Minister. To save his and the Prime Minister's wife's life, he impersonates a celebrity impersonator impersonating the Prime Minister on top of being a celebrity impersonator impersonating the Prime Minister (this is not a spoiler, as it drastically under-explains what's actually going on in that scene).
Alas, Mr Stratton's joy is not unalloyed:
The only place where the book bogs down is when the main character, as Prime Minister, gives his 'big speech'. It's not nearly as big as a real speech, but it's a lot longer than a novelized speech. And it sounds a lot more like Mark Steyn than like the character giving it.
Well, it could have been worse. Years ago, I read The Remake, a novel by the late Clive James (who was very kind and generous to me in my salad days). It was a dazzlingly written, densely literary and very self-referential tale in which at one point a successful celebrity author living in the Barbican (as both Clive himself and yours truly did at that time) makes an aside about "a flaky writer of some kind called Clive James". I thought that was a cute joke, and I was going to put a line in The Prisoner of Windsor about my chap lifting his speech from a column he'd read on the Internet by a flaky writer called Mark Steyn. But then I remembered that that was the point in Clive's book where the infuriated reviewers had hurled the thing across the room...
I thank Jerry Stratton for his very perceptive review, but I note that, oddly enough, that "big speech" chapter was a particular favourite with audio-book listeners. Lisa Gerlich from Texas:
You have outdone yourself with this episode.
So I shall be interested to see how it plays out in hard covers.
The Prisoner of Windsor is available right now:
~If you'd like a personally autographed copy, click here.
(If you're a Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter your promotional code at checkout for special member pricing.)
~For a hardback from Amazon US, click here.
~For a hardback from Amazon Canada, click here.
~For Barnes & Noble, click here.
~For Indigo in Canada, click here.
~For Kobo worldwide, click here.
~For the Kindle edition across the globe, click below: