Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Isabel Allende's version of the legendary Zorro, mythical justice fighter of the Spanish American colonies, is more Lone Ranger than Zapata; he's also a bit Clark Kent comes to California with a touch of Robin Hood. But despite such a rich canvas of intertextuality, this novel stubbornly refuses to be anything but an old-fashioned yarn on an epic scale. Diego, raised in the turbulent California of the early 19th century, is the hybrid child of an aristocratic Spanish adventurer and a pre–feminist Shoshone warrior. He has the intellect and cultivation of one, and the survival skills and supernatural instincts of the other. Rather like Davy Crockett. From his father he learns to be a gentleman, while his mother and grandmother — a formidable shaman called White Owl — initiate him into the secrets of his tribe. His dual background, which endows him with a heightened loathing of injustice, is the ideal preparation for his future double life.

It's when he's sent to Barcelona to complete his studies that Diego develops his alter ego. He travels with his devoted Indian companion Bernardo, who is Robin to his Batman or, more pertinently, his Tonto to his Lone Ranger. On the journey the boys — already schooled in wood lore and horse breaking — develop new skills like sword fighting, gambling and swinging from rigging on the high seas. Which all comes in very useful once they're in Barcelona and find their childhood capers translated into serious sorties as freedom fighters.

Appalled at the iniquities he encounters in the old country, Diego determines to champion goodness and the honourable values of his ancestors, much like Superman's truth, justice and the American way. He adopts a similarly impressive cloak to go with his new identity as super hero. By day, as a student living with his genteel hosts, he cultivates the persona of a bookish young man given to headaches and dizzy spells. At night, when performing such daring feats of courage as freeing prisoners from stench–filled cells or exposing the dastardly deceptions of his arch enemy Moncada, he is Zorro the fox, whose hallmarks are the Z he carves in blood and the half–mask over his eyes, not unlike another Western gun–toter.

This rambling saga of shifting fortunes and picaresque incident is interlaced with the story of Diego's unrequited love for Juliana, daughter of his host Tomas de Romeu, and his rivalry for her affections with the sly and cowardly Moncada.

When de Romeu is executed for treason after the collapse of Napoleon's regime, Diego escorts Juliana and her sister, disguised as pilgrims, across Spain to catch a boat for America. They escape perilous attacks, travel with a band of gypsies, and eventually fall prey to marauding pirates before arriving at a stricken home, devastated by the brutal rule of Diego's old adversary Moncada.

As a backdrop to these adventures Allende offers a wealth of detail: from the fashions of the day and the complex sets of social hierarchies to the privation suffered by the poor and the scandalous prison conditions; from the perils of long ship journeys to conditions in the Spanish missions.

But these colourful descriptions are never more than an aside to the story, which culminates in a veritable firework display of derring–do and cunning bravery: prisons are stormed and villains humiliated. It's as action–packed as the original Zorro comics — with about the same degree of subtlety. Baddies are bad, the decent are unblemished. The aristocracy tend to be cowardly and deceitful while the lowborn are noble savages.

The Indians live by a code of dignity and honour; the gypsies have honour among thieves; the Creoles are spirited but decent. All have magical powers: they can heal, predict the future, place curses, see in the dark, talk to animals, communicate telepathically. They operate by instinct and feeling while white people are unfeeling and dominated by cold logic.

This crude stereotyping hints at a more philosophical theme: the conflict between the old and the new world; between the traditional and the progressive; between Christianity, the ancient spirituality of the Indians, and the new scepticism of the Enlightenment. There are even token references to the obscenities of slave transportation and of the obliteration of native American civilisation, as well as occasional observations about varying versions of tyranny.

But such potentially interesting ideas flounder in the grand sweep of coincidences and melodrama, the cardboard characterization and the wildly exaggerated accomplishments of the real men and their idiosyncratic codes of honour. Diego tries not to kill, only to maim. The gentleman pirate Jean LeFitte may deal in slave traffic and think nothing of selling women into harems, but he fights for the Americans at New Orleans and runs his strange colony of thieves and buccaneers as a democracy.

All this is farfetched enough. But the whole edifice finally collapses when it comes to romance. Easily the most sexually magnetic men are the ones with a scent of danger around them. Diego isn't much to look at but as Zorro he's magnificent and women flock to him. Bernardo has an animal attractiveness that outshines the wishy–washy well–born whites who scorn him. Most dashing of all is Jean LeFitte, who only has to look at a woman to make her swoon.

All three, however, remain true to the women they love, foregoing all others. It's not as though they don't have offers. They just want to be faithful.

So that's what magical realism is all about. Total fantasy.