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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: The Fox so Cunning and Free: ZORRO by Isabel Allende, Harper Collins

Best-selling novelist Isabel Allende’s vivid reimagining of the Zorro legend will make you want to pick up a sword and start slashing your initials into the nearest available bad guy.

This rollicking adventure yarn is that much fun, chock-full of romance and heroism, a swashbuckling read for the whole family, told by a mysterious narrator who is unmasked at the end.

Diego de la Vega, born in the Spanish colony of California in 1795, possesses “a disproportionate love of justice.”

His father is an aristocrat and landowner who falls in love with a half-Spanish, half-Shoshone female warrior who leads an Indian revolt against crown and church. When she is captured, Alejandro de la Vega saves her life, then marries her.

Their only son is Diego, an impetuous, privileged boy who gulps down life by the mouthful and has a wide streak of sympathy for the oppressed.

His “milk brother” is Bernardo (as babies, both are fed by Bernardo’s mother), a quiet, steadfast, full-blooded Indian boy.

He is the flip side of Diego, the yin to the yang. Theirs is an almost telepathic relationship, a lifelong bond.

To his credit, Diego shares all of his learning, from formal education to lessons in the sword and bullwhip, with Bernardo, who would be denied most everything under the oppressive colonial caste system.

Diego’s Indian grandmother, the shaman White Owl, ensures that the boys learn the ways of the tribe as well; it is during an Indian manhood ritual that Diego has a vision of a zorro, or fox, which becomes his totemic animal, his “spiritual guide.”

At 16, Diego is sent to Barcelona to complete his university studies and learn from the Spanish master swordsman, Manuel Escalante. Bernardo, of course, shadows his brother.

Spain is then under the iron fist of the occupying French. Conquered by Napoleon, the backward country, frozen in time by the forces of the Inquisition, is a hotbed of betrayal and guerrilla warfare.

Here is where Zorro is born. Here, also, is where Diego meets Juliana, whom he believes is the love of his life but who treats him as “an unbalanced younger brother.”

And it is here that Zorro meets his nemesis, the wealthy, dastardly aristocrat Rafael Moncada, who, it turns out, is not above kidnapping priests and young girls.

Allende’s cinematic scene-chewing and brisk pace make Zorro a novel easy to read in an all-night session. And the action! There’s a tragic pirate raid on the California estate, an event that scars both boys; a sea voyage with a crusty crew of sailors; magic tricks and acrobatics; a prison-break rescue (actually, two); a trek across Basque country with Gypsies; a secret society of heroes devoted to the pursuit of justice; capture by the charming pirate Jean Lafitte; a scheme to steal a fortune in pearls (it backfires, of course, thanks to the man in black); and more old-fashioned, rip-roaring storytelling than you can shake a sword at.

Remarkably, Diego is no cardboard hero checked out from central casting; Allende has skillfully rounded his corners, nuanced him and breathed life into him as a somewhat foppish caballero by day, the fearless defender of the downtrodden (and no slouch with the ladies) by night.

His dual nature perplexes and defines him.

In Moncada, the Chilean novelist has created a cowardly bully fueled by greed and steered by perceived privilege in the world.

Of course, not unusual for Allende, whose other books include The House of Spirits, the women characters are strong, notably Diego’s mother Toypurnia, White Owl and Isabel, a young Spanish girl who becomes a sort of sister to Diego in Barcelona.

Each is an independent woman with a true sense of herself, who would never fall into the trap of depending on a man.Allende’s Zorro reads like classic 19th-century literature. Sometimes, there’s nothing like a seat-of-the-pants adventure to lighten the weight of the world.

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