Isabel Allende gave the world a wonderful origin story for the legend of Zorro. Yes, I grew up with the black and white TV show and have enjoyed the various movies. But this story was the first tale that gave Zorro true seriousness.
This riveting tale starts with Zorro's parents and continues on from there with the birth of Diego and his antics as a boy. His milk brother (so called because they were both breast fed by the same woman) Bernado, a full blooded Native American, was born in the same week. An antic with a bear particularly stood out for me. The book then takes a more serious turn when pirates attack this California coastal village, leaving a few dead and many scarred for life. As Diego and Bernado become young men, they have an opportunity to go off to Catalan-speaking Spain to allow Diego to polish off his schooling. The antics continue, including performance in a gypsy circus, sword-training by a master of a secret society, and young love.
I was looking for a clever retelling of this fictional American homegrown hero, something with an interesting feminine twist. What I got was indeed a retelling, but not as clever or interesting as I had hoped.
This is a "tale of origin" explaining how Zorro became the masked avenger. He is born Diego de la Vega, son of a Spanish hidalgo and a fierce Shoshone she-warrior. Apparently, the author took great pains to research this book. Kudos. Despite all the research, there seemed to be something a little off. It wasn't so much the facts that were suspect (although I'd like to check if the Shoshone values of "Okahue" were created to serve the plot), but the way the facts integrated--or failed to integrate--with the story. At one point Diego is bitten by a rattlesnake. "Diego remembered some of the facts he had learned about rattlesnakes..." The facts that follow may as well be numbered, taken from some text or scientific article. The fencing scenes are even worse. You might as well read from a manual. I listened to the audio-book, so here is my best paraphrase: "He held his arm 180 degrees in front, foil pointed forward, left arm raised 90 degrees over his head for balance." Yes, that makes for quite the thrilling fight scene. The gripes go on. Every other word is a cliche (the translator's fault?), there is hardly any dialogue, the prose is bland, the characters flat and impossible to sympathize with, as they have as much pep as are papier mache.
This is my first Allende book, and I hear she is renowned for her well-drawn female characters and ability to write emotional drama. I can't speak for her other books, but here I found Julianna a distressed damsel, and Isabelle just annoying. Nuria, the girls' chaperon, is religious, superstitious and narrow-minded, which makes her the most interesting of all. As for the men...Bernardo the mute Shoshone is sympathetic, mainly because of some emotional manipulation on the writer's part by making him an orphan who refuses to talk due to his suffering. She tries to make Zorro a sort of "scarlet pimpernel" type who behaves flamboyantly while defending the downtrodden from behind his mask. As with all her descriptions, she never gets more specific than saying he "dressed well" and "behaved flamboyantly". No "show", all "tell". She also tends to spell things out in case the reader wasn't observant enough to figure out something themselves.
I'd like to end on a positive note. Scientific discussion of rattlesnake bites aside, I did enjoy Diego's and Bernardo's Spirit Quests with the Shoshone tribe. I thought the two boys' respective experiences finding their totem animals did more to establish character than any other anecdote in this book.
I thoroughly enjoyed this epic tale of the early life of Zorro. It was an adventurous, yet believable tale about how he acquired all his skills and then naturally evolved into the Zorro legend. I am picky about narrators, and found Blair Brown's voice to be enjoyable to listen to; a VERY entertaining book.