Every time I start a K.J. Charles book I’m convinced it can’t possibly be as good as the one that preceded it, but happily, every time Ms. Charles proves me wrong. Told from an alternate point of view and substantially queerer (Ms. Charles’ words), The Henchmen of Zenda is loosely based on the classic The Prisoner of Zenda, and the author packs A LOT into its short page count. There are villains double crosses, kidnappings, sword fights, a princess, intrigues and doppelgangers, and a sexy May-December love affair. The story is complex and features a large cast of memorable secondary characters – and it demands all of your attention as you read it. But it’s worth your time and focus, friends. The Henchmen of Zenda is the wonderful, swashbuckling story you hoped for when you glimpsed that lovely cover, and I loved every single thing about it.
Jasper Detchard is a disgraced former soldier who’s lived a full life long before he’s hired by Michael Elphberg, Duke of Strelsau, half-brother to the soon-to-be King of Ruritania. Inured to the whims of men in powerful positions, he isn’t surprised when Michael invites (blackmails) him into joining the small group of henchmen he’s assembled to overthrow his half-brother and assume the throne. Smart, unrepentant about who and what he is (queer; a fearsome fighter available to the highest bidder), Jasper assumes the job will be fairly straightforward: kill the heir and install Michael on the throne. Only nothing is as it seems in Ruritania – including Michael’s plans. Jasper finds himself doubting everything and everyone involved in the scheme, and so do we.
Fortunately, Jasper, our jaded and sardonic narrator, understands things aren’t quite as they appear from the outset. Via his PoV we uncover the machinations and motivations behind Michael’s attempt to overthrow his brother – and we get to know the not-so merry and downright nasty (with few exceptions) group of co-conspirators with whom Jasper spends his days. Each of the henchmen is included because of a specific set of skills. In Jasper’s case, he’s famed for his bravery and talent with a blade; he quickly ascertains the special sinister skills of his fellow henchmen – until he meets (and falls for) Rupert of Hentzau. Handsome, confident, stylish and charming, it isn’t immediately clear why Michael includes him. But Jasper suspects he’s a spy – and despite his attraction to the henchman, he’s reluctant to trust him.
Suffice it to say, Jasper is smart to be cautious. No one and nothing are quite as they appear, and the story is full of twists and turns, double crosses and treachery. The Henchmen of Zenda is one of those stories that precludes a reviewer from sharing too much of the plot without spoiling it for the reader, but fortunately much of the pleasure in the book lies in Ms. Charles’s wonderful primary and secondary characters. Their motivations – and relationships with each other – enhance this clever story, and discussing them won’t spoil the novel.
Jasper is a terrific anti-hero. Clever, confident, and a brilliant fighter, he’s done every villainous thing you can think of and he’s unapologetically gay. When Michael blackmails him into joining his plot to kill the king, he’s frustrated but fairly ‘meh’ about the whole thing. His fellow henchmen are a largely unlikeable lot – but Jasper keeps them – and Michael – at arm’s length. He has a deliciously wry sense of humor, and it’s a nice to surprise to discover how reliable he is as a narrator of this tale of treachery and betrayal. Truly, Jasper’s PoV – and his relationships with his fellow henchmen, Michael, and Michael’s mistress – perfectly suits the story and is a highlight.
And then, just when Jasper begins to believe he understands Michael and his schemes, Rupert appears.
Rupert is gorgeous, suave and an accomplished flirt. He loves men and women – and when he meets Jasper, he can’t resist flirting with his taciturn companion. Jasper is supremely dry and Rupert is delightfully sly. I loved the interplay between the two men and the obvious contrasts between them, and the novel is never better than when they are together mock fighting/flirting. Rupert has his own agenda, but he guards it carefully… even as he and Jasper dance around their attraction. Rupert delights in teasing, but Jasper, once caught, is anything but submissive; he quickly turns the table on his young lover. Once the pair become intimate, Jasper’s experience and maturity adds a compelling intensity to their dynamic together – and watching them both come undone by their attraction to each other is supremely satisfying. Eventually, the pair are forced to confide in each other – but once they plot how to move forward, it’s refreshing how Ms. Charles treats them as equals. They each have a role but neither is the “protector” or the “savior.” They’re equals who respect – and like – one another enough to trust the other.
In addition to Jasper and Rupert, Ms. Charles populates the novel with a terrific and memorable group of secondary characters. Really, the story could be told by any one of them and be equally compelling. Michael is a mess – obsessed with overthrowing his brother, he’s the major villain of this story. But his henchmen, particularly his poisoner, are also nasty pieces of work. His half-brother, a drunken and spoiled despoiler of innocents is equally awful, and really, amongst this lot, there aren’t many characters you want to root for. Well, there is one – but to confess it would be to spoil the resolution of this mess. Michael’s mistress is another standout, and I loved how Ms. Charles uses her to illustrate Jasper’s tender side. He’s a loyal and loving friend – and reader, he’s one of her best characters to date.
While Think of England is still my favorite K.J. Charles book, The Henchmen of Zenda isn’t far off the top spot. Clever, complicated and supremely entertaining, it’s easily one of my favorite books of 2018. With an anti-hero you can’t help but root for, and a happy for now ending perfectly suited to the story and its principal pair, this queer twist on The Prisoner of Zenda transcends the original.