“It is a story of courage in the dark, honour in the teeth of love, nobility above all. It gives us a beautiful, passionate princess, a man who renounces love and crown for the sake of a greater and purer cause, and a villain— such a villain.”
Thank you very much to KJ Charles for providing a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.
Every time I find out that KJ Charles has a new book coming out, I get ridiculously excited, but this time I was over the moon. Why? Because this time, KJ has taken a classic tale of adventure, manly courage and unstable politics, and flipped the entire thing on its head by retelling this story with queer men, untraditional antiheroes and badass women.
While The Prisoner of Zenda has been on my TBR for years, I haven’t yet had the chance to read it. Reading The Henchmen of Zenda, a story based upon the original, I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t understand KJ’s take — having read almost all of KJ’s bibliography, I went into this book fairly confident that I would not only enjoy the book, but love it. And, oh boy, did I!
I’m seriously starting to think KJ can do no wrong. I read this book in two sittings, poised on the edge of my seat and laughing almost at every page. KJ’s unique retelling is set from the perspective of Jasper Detchard, one of the villainous Six, a group of six Henchmen belonging to Duke Michael of Strelsau, the half-brother of the King of Ruritania. Michael has wanted the throne for himself for years, and, along with his Six, designs a plot to seize it. But, things go wildly out of control and Jasper and his love interest, the indomitable Rupert of Hentzau, are forced to take measures into their own hands.
“I’ll smile at them, you stab them.”
Jasper is definitely an antihero — and he knows it. He’s a murderer, a thief, a liar, a cheat, a thug, and a hundred other villainous terms you can think of. He can count on one hand the number of people he cares about and still have three fingers left over. He’s genuinely one of my favourite antiheroes, because he’s so different from the usual sort of Victorian heroes you come across: he’s not a heartthrob, he’s not someone who goes out of his way to protect his lover because he knows fully well they can protect themselves, and he’s thirty-six and semi-handsome (sorry Jasper). He’s only involved in this entire thing to save a close friend. And then he meets Rupert.
Rudolf Rassendyll, the original narrator of Anthony Hope’s novel, describes Rupert of Hentzau as “reckless and wary, graceful and graceless, handsome, debonair, vile, and unconquered” — a quote Jasper frequently comes back to because it’s so accurate. Rupert is, essentially, a little shit — and Jasper can’t help but fall for him.
I was so enraptured by Jasper and Rupert’s relationship because it really is like nothing I’ve ever come across before in the romance genre. I have a headcanon that Jasper is aromantic – this is my belief, not the author’s, although I think there are some examples in the text – so I loved seeing how Jasper and Rupert’s relationship developed when one (both) of them is a degenerate and the other is someone who doesn’t like to form strong, romantic relationships with people, because he’s uncomfortable with the expectations romance comes with. Jasper and Rupert fit very well together, and the development of their relationship evolved naturally and wonderfully.
“Rassendyll somewhat patronisingly calls me a cool man, relentless, but without Hentzau’s dash, and that is fair. Heroes are dashing. I prefer winning.”
Like all KJC books, you can really tell that KJ has done her research. Although Ruritania is a fake country created by Anthony Hope, KJ brought the country to life through her vivd descriptions of Zenda and the Ruritanian countryside. You definitely know what you’re getting when you read KJ’s books: you know you’ll get a great romance, but more than that, an incredibly entertaining, well-researched historical novel.
If you’re looking for a story from the antihero’s perspective, a story with murder, treason, double and triple crosses, where characters change allegiances every few chapters, where all the players have their own motives, and the reader is left breathless, wondering what in the hell could possibly happen next, then definitely pick up KJ Charles’ The Henchmen of Zenda.