FYI: I received an ARC of The Henchmen of Zenda by K. J. Charles in exchange for an honest review.
I absolutely loved The Henchmen of Zenda by K. J. Charles. If you’re into 1940s swashbuckling films or Victorian pulp fiction, this is for you.
If the title sounds familiar, you may have heard of Anthony Hope’s Victorian novel The Prisoner of Zenda. K. J. Charles originally wrote this story as part of Riptide’s Classics Queered series before Riptide’s ugly racist/prejudiced underbelly was revealed. Now, it is being independently published.
Before I talk more about the story, I need to say that I have never read The Prisoner of Zenda, and I purpose didn’t read it before reading The Henchmen of Zenda. I wanted the book to stand on its own without having my opinion (or mind) polluted by the original. It isn’t necessary to read Hope’s novel in order to understand the story line as Charles masterfully fills in any gaps while poking fun at the original narrator.
What I loved about The Henchmen of Zenda was our narrator, Jasper Detchard, swordsman for hire, Englishman, and a minor villain in the original tale. He tells the tale of how he ends up being roped into Michael’s (the Duke and brother of the legitimate heir) service and became entangled in a power struggle between Michael, Randolph, and Flavia (the princess and cousin of the two brothers). Detchard is utterly unflappable, in control, and sardonic. He’s basically Basil Rathbone in every swashbuckling movie he ever filmed, and he adds a grounding force when set against his foil, Rupert Hentzau.
Ah, Rupert. A young noble looking for adventure, a rogue with a good heart (who would most certainly be played by Errol Flynn), and a thorn in Detchard’s side who eventually grows on him to become something more. Their chemistry grows from sword fighting to sword fighting (*eyebrow waggle*). He’s witty, lively, and more complex than he is given credit for. Together with their ally, Toni (a courtesan turned mistress turned spy turned bad ass), they manage to turn the tides of battle and have a happier ending than would have been possible in a Victorian pulp tale.
The best part of The Henchmen of Zenda is how K. J. Charles was able to turn the original story on its head by turning heroes into villains, villains into heroes, weak women into the power behind the thrown, and yet, it all makes sense! I give her kudos for her ability to engineer a completely new (and better) version of a century old tale. Her take adds a new level of complexity to a pretty problematic story (by modern standards) and giving it a queer and feminist spin.
The Henchmen of Zenda will be out May 15th, so if this review piqued your interest, you can grab a copy here.