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Zorro    by Isabel Allende order for
by Isabel Allende
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I remember being entranced by the original swashbuckling films (in black and white) as a child, and equally thrilled by the more recent movie version. Zorro had the same impact on my teen years as Star Wars has had to my sons. So I was delighted to see a writer of the stature of Isabel Allende tackle the subject (her words are translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden). The first page says it all: 'Let me say it straight out: there is no one like Zorro.'

In this version, Diego grows up the son of Don Alejandro de la Vega and of a mestizo warrior woman, Toypurnia, who led a brief rebellion against the Spanish. He is strongly influenced by his grandmother, White Owl (a Gabrieleno shaman and healer) to fight tyranny. Under her tutelage, he meets his spirit guide - zorro, the fox. Diego's close friend all his life is his Indian milk brother, Bernardo, whom tragedy turns mute. Allende describes Diego's early years in California, and then spends most of the book on the time he and Bernardo spend in Napoleonic Spain. There, they live with the family of Alejandro de la Vega's oldest friend, Tomas de Romeu. Diego falls for Tomas' elder daughter, the lovely Juliana, treats her younger sister, tomboy Isabel, like a brother, and earns the lifelong enmity of Juliana's mean-spirited suitor, Rafael Moncada, whose designs he foils at every opportunity.

The author shows us how Diego developed the skills and personality for which he was later renowned, and the momentum that built towards the legend. He learns acrobatics on a sea voyage, swordsmanship from a master, the role of a dandy from a desire to lower his enemy's defenses, and magic tricks - as well as the skills of carnal love - from gypsies. His burning quest for justice is stoked by initiation into a secret society, 'La Justicia', and Diego hones his skills, by saving innocents in Spain, long before he does the same in California. While the narrator is clearly someone close to Diego/Zorro, he or she speaks with light irony, mixing mockery of the legend with affection for the man, and remains a mystery until late in the novel.

Allende fills in all the shadowy corners of the hero's background, adding depth and an engaging twist to his story via important additions to the well known cast of players. Her version of Zorro, as rich in characterization (especially in remarkably strong women) as it is in history, is not to be missed by anyone interested in the legend, or in a great historical read.

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