Genre: middle grade general fiction
Secondary genre: classics/historical
Format read: hard copy
Burnett is one of my favorite authors from my childhood. A Little Princess and The Secret Garden were books that got me through the toughest part of middle school, with a little help from Harry Potter and Mercedes Lackey.
I found this particular book at a Half Price and was sold based on the cover and author alone. Published in 1910, this book has a lovely old fashioned cover with gilt accents. I’d never heard of the title, so I snapped it up.
Having now read it, I do see why Princess and Garden are more popular. The story isn’t bad, but it is a bit slow, and our main character, Marco, is not as well-rounded of a character as Mary or Sara, and I didn’t find the plot as intriguing.
But I should probably tell you what the book was about, shouldn’t I?
The story starts with young Marco, his father Stefen, and their servant arriving in London. They have lived all over Europe and even in parts of Asia. Marco has been trained to speak the language of every country they’ve lived in as if he’s a native, mastering English, German, French, Russian, and others, though they are originally from the fictional country of Samavia, a small, war-torn nation in Eastern Europe that appears to border Russia, as well as a small collection of other tiny, made-up nations bent on tearing it apart. Marco and his father have fled the carnage, though they intend to return one day when it is safe. Though they are poor, they live like gentlemen, and insist on proper manners, cleanliness, and a way of holding themselves that sets them apart from the others living in the London slum.
One day while walking, trying to learn the layout of his new city, Marco stumbles upon a group of boys playing in an alley. At their head is a boy on a cart, who clearly cannot walk. Despite this, “the Rat” as he’s called (due to the way he scurries around on his cart, and also a play on his surname) has a power over these boys, and they’d follow him into fire if he asked. The dozen or so children play at military drills and imaginary wars. The Rat reads the papers and learns about current events from his neglectful, alcoholic father.
Among the things he has learned about are the political troubles in Samavia. When he learns that Marco knows of them, too, they team up, adding a richness to “the game” as they dub it that previously didn’t exist. They plan imaginary battles and how to guard or protect the capital city. When The Rat learns the tale of The Lost Prince, their small company dedicates themselves to finding him and restoring him to the throne.
According to legend, 500 years earlier, the good son of a wicked ruler went out for a walk and was never seen again. Shortly after he vanished, his father was murdered and deposed and the current, cruel regime took over.
But there’s a story that the prince was injured and taken in by a monastery, and his line lives on, hidden from view, waiting for the right time to take back the throne.
When Marco tells his father about “the game” his father encourages him, and then slowly begins to reveal his own secrets about their time in England: He, too, has been seeking to restore the lost prince’s line to the throne.
But things take a turn when other discover Stefen’s goal and try to use Marco to find out what he knows. The boys are drawn into political machinations spanning the entire continent, though they themselves have only limited knowledge of what is actually going on.
This book mirrors a lot of the political unrest happening in Europe around the time the book was written, and would probably be a good introduction to pre-WWI history for younger readers, though it is of course fictional and most of the politics involve countries that don’t exist and never did. There is a fairy tale element to it in the way the Lost Prince returns to save his country and his people, instantly bringing peace to the area again.
It wasn’t my favorite Burnett book, but it might be worth a read, especially for younger boys–who are, after all, the intended audience.