A boy’s adventure story first published in 1915 — while it’s fiction, it’s clearly inspired by real events and politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The book opens in London, where young Marco Loristan is living with his father in impoverished exile. Marco’s father is a player in the politics of his war-torn homeland, the fictional country of Samavia, and has raised the boy to be a patriot even though Marco has never seen his homeland. They have travelled extensively in Europe, and the multi-lingual Marco has learnt to guard his father’s secrets and pass as a local wherever he might be.
By chance Marco meets The Rat, leader of a group of London street urchins. The Rat is a cripple, but has a brilliant mind and a fascination with politics and military tactics — and a talent for creating detailed stories to entertain the group he leads. The two boys bond, in part because both Marco and his father recognise and take seriously The Rat’s grasp of military tactics, and when The Rat’s father dies he is taken into the Loristan household.
Samavia is war-torn because for the last few centuries it has been squabbled over by two families of pretenders to the throne. The last true heir was lost when his father tried to kill him, but it is rumoured that he survived, and that his line still exists, waiting in exile until they hear the call to the return. When the time comes to send a message to the secret network of patriots that the lost prince has returned at last, the boys volunteer to be the messengers. As they point out, nobody will suspect two young begger lads, one of them a cripple. And so begins an adventure across Europe, as they take the signal to a variety of secret agents, avoiding traps and counter-agents along the way. The two boys are very different, but well-matched, and make an excellent team. Their travels and travails make for a cracking adventure story.
It’s obvious to the reader from the first few chapters that Marco’s father is the lost prince, but has deliberately kept Marco unaware of this. Marco is intelligent enough, but The Rat is a much more imaginative and lateral-thinking boy, and this is shown well as they progress across Europe and The Rat begins to suspect from the reactions of their contacts that Marco is rather more than he knows.
It’s an interesting read from a current-day perspective. There’s a clear assumption that the lost prince and his descendents are the Right Ruler because they’re the legal heirs, and that Monarchy Is Good; but layered over that there are clear indications that Marco is a good person who will make a good king in future years because he has been brought up to be a good person and taught how to be an effective leader, rather than being so simply because of who his ancestors are. There’s also a strong strand of Buddhist philosophy in the book, and it’s made clear that part of what makes Marco’s father an effective leader of the exiles is his encounter with and willingness to learn from a Buddhist guru. While he’s willing to fight when necessary, he has learnt self-mastery and a willingness *not* to fight, and taught that to Marco. While the book’s often rather predictable (in a way that is perfectly reasonable in a children’s adventure book), it’s rather more than formulaic. And of course there are now additional layers to the connections with real history, because Samavia is rather obviously set in what later became called Yugoslavia.
I enjoyed this a lot. If you’ve liked some of Burnett’s other work, it’s well worth downloading a copy of this one from Project Gutenberg and giving it a try.
It’s available as a free download from Project Gutenberg and other public domain book sites, but because it’s now out of copyright you can also buy it in a whole slew of POD print editions at Amazon UK and Amazon US. Personally, if I wanted a paper copy I’d look for a cheap second-hand copy of one of the old editions rather than one of the new expensive POD editions.