Desert Isle Keeper
The Henchmen of Zenda
I’ve been looking forward to The Henchmen of Zenda, K.J. Charles’ ‘queered’ retelling of the classic The Prisoner of Zenda, ever since she announced it months ago, and in fact the book made my ‘most eagerly awaited of 2018 list‘ here at AAR. I love a ripping adventure yarn, and that’s exactly what the author has delivered – a tale of swashbuckling derring-do featuring a pair of amoral, cynical and devil-may-care anti-heroes, palace intrigue, political shenanigans, double crosses, triple crosses… and hot sex. The latter being missing from Anthony Hope’s original novel, which isn’t surprising considering it was written in 1894. :P The Henchmen of Zenda can be enjoyed without reference to the original, although I’ll admit that for me, part of the fun was spotting the places where the stories meshed and picking up on the in-jokes.
For anyone not familiar with The Prisoner of Zenda, the story is basically this. Rudolf V, the new King of (the fictional) small European country of Ruritania, is drugged on the eve of his coronation by those working for his half-brother, Michael, Duke of Strelsau, who wants the throne for himself. In a desperate attempt to stop Michael, those loyal to the king persuade an English gentleman (Rudolf Rassendyll) who bears an uncanny resemblance to the monarch and happens to be holidaying in their country to impersonate the king during the coronation. Things are complicated when Michael’s men kidnap the king and Rassendyll falls in love with the Princess Flavia, who is Rudolf’s betrothed; complications, plots and counter-plots ensue, Rassendyll leads an assault on the castle of Zenda and rescues the king, and then honourably bows out, leaving Flavia to do her duty to her king and country.
When our narrator, Jasper Detchard, immediately dismisses Rassendyll’s account as a pile of shit, and Rassendyll as an uptight prick who lied to make himself look good, the reader immediately knows they’re in for a rollicking good time. Detchard’s deadpan, sarcastic narrative style grabbed me right away:
“My name is Jasper Detchard, and according to Rassendyll’s narrative, I am dead. This should give you some idea of his accuracy, since I do not dictate these words to some cabbage-scented medium from beyond the veil.”
A disgraced former army officer who now makes his living as a mercenary, Detchard is approached by Michael Elphberg, Duke of Strelsau, to become one of his trusted bodyguard (known as The Six). Michael demands absolute, unquestioning loyalty, and Detchard, not one to be overly picky as to where he lays his hat or sells his sword – signs up. As it turns out, for more than he bargained for.
I’m not going to say more about the plot because it’s twisty and complex and full of clever moves, counter moves and counter-counter moves and I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice to say that Detchard’s reasons for accepting Michael’s offer aren’t quite as transparent as they seem and he’s going to be playing a dangerous game. So the last thing he needs is the distraction provided by the reckless, outrageously gorgeous, larger-than-life young ne’er-do-well, Rupert of Hentzau.
He’s a former companion of the debauched king, a turncoat and a late addition to Michael’s exclusive band of murderers and assassins; and Detchard is, despite his better judgement and innate cynicism, captivated by the younger man’s beauty and insouciance, recognising a kindred spirit of sorts, a dangerous man of questionable (if any) morals who seems to share his no-fucks-left-to-give attitude to life. Hentzau is a force of nature, and even though Michael has forbidden any *ahem* fraternization, Hentzau blithely disregards that instruction and is clearly as interested in getting into Detchard’s breeches as Detchard is in having him there.
One of the big differences between this and the original novel is that K.J. Charles has given these characters personalities and lives of their own that go beyond what we see on the page. The sub-plot involving Michael’s mistress, Antoinette de Mauban, adds depth and another, more personal, layer to the story, and I loved the way that both she and Princess Flavia are so much more than the mere cyphers of the original novel. These are ladies who know how to play the game – and they’re better at it than the men.
The stars of the show are, of course, Detchard and Hentzau – liars, cheats, murderers and a hundred other despicable things – and yet immensely engaging and entertaining as they rattle their way through the pages with reckless glee. Ms. Charles creates a strong connection between the pair which evolves naturally and realistically from an initial wariness to eventual trust, with plenty of steamy hook-ups along the way. Their chemistry is electric, their verbal sparring is as entertaining as their swordplay (both euphemistically and otherwise!) and their relationship is refreshingly frank and down-to-earth. Neither is interested in or comfortable with the concept of ‘romance’ but something clearly evolves between them that is more than mere physical attraction; they come to respect and admire each other… not that either would ever admit to such a thing, of course, and while there isn’t an HEA in the traditional sense, it’s as close to happy ever after as these two are ever going to get (or want) and that feels absolutely right.
The Henchmen of Zenda is a rollicking adventure romp of the best sort; full of flashing blades, tight breeches, nefarious plots, scheming villainy and snarky dialogue but with a subplot that confers depth and insight into the characters and their motivations. It’s funny, sexy and clever and I loved every minute of it.