Friday, May 25, 2018

THE HENCHMEN OF ZENDA by KJ Charles (2018) - A not forgotten or overlooked book.

And now for something a little different.

This is not a forgotten or overlooked book really since it's just newly published, but I'm writing about it anyway since this author has been overlooked by yours truly until just recently. Truth be told, I stumbled on the work of KJ Charles on Kindle while looking for Regency romances (I do get in the mood for a good romance now and again and I'm mad about historicals.) I had no clue then that Charles has made a kind of niche for herself writing imaginative, non-traditional historical romances featuring gay heroes. Also I had no clue that she was an exceptional writer with the gift of making the reader care about her characters.

Though some of her stories are set in Regency England when homosexuality was punishable by hanging, this particular book takes place in Victorian times - when homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment and/or other indignities - certainly not as bad as being dead, but really. So in a way, these are kind of wishful fairy tales (yeah, couldn't help myself) with requisite happy endings but wonderfully - if frankly - written and thoroughly engaging. Between the beginning and the happy ending, though, are enough dramatic entanglements to keep anyone entertained for a couple of hours. I found myself really enjoying several of Charles' books. Who knew? 

However if you object to the depiction of romantic tales of costumed gentlemen and knaves who happen to be gay, and or, for that matter depictions of sex (gay or otherwise), then please move on about your business and don't bother reading my review or voicing your objections. Certainly there are plenty of other terrific books out there for all of us to read and talk about. I understand that not everyone can be as broadminded as moi - though I often wonder why not. But I digress, as usual.

At any rate, THE HENCHMEN OF ZENDA is a devilishly good if atypical example of this genre or niche or whatever you want to call it. In this case, Charles has done something clever and in many ways, impressive. She has upended the famed Victorian potboiler THE PRISONER OF ZENDA by Anthony Hope and retold the entire story from an opposite point of view, peppering the tale with two incredibly dashing protagonists who just happen to lust after each other in a very manly and steamy way. Both men are characters who appeared in the original novel and apparently sparked Charles' imagination: one is Rupert of Hentzau and the other is a minor character named Jasper Detchard, an itinerant henchman. Both are soldiers of fortune who work for the evil Michael, Duke of Streslau, wicked brother of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Ruritania. All the characters from the original tale are here, but looked at with different and very jaded eyes.

(As an aside: Hope himself wrote a sequel titled RUPERT OF HENTZAU. The Zenda story continued from  yet another point of view. But omitting any hint of male cupidity.)

If you've seen either of the splendid ZENDA movies, the one starring Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr (1952) and the other starring Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll (1937) then you already know the official story. Link here to read my review from a few years ago, of the ZENDA movies.

And if you've read the Anthony Hope book (a short read of an evening and fun to boot) then you're that far ahead. BUT, you need not have read the original at all to enjoy THE HENCHMEN OF ZENDA, in that case, just read it as a sexy, entertaining swashbuckling standalone.

P.S. And let's not forget Princess Flavia who in this instance is more a presence, even behind the scenes, than anyone bargained for. Is Rassendyll in for a surprise? I can say no more.

Itinerant henchman Jasper Detchard (who was killed off in the original story by Anthony Hope) has lots to say in Charles' version:

"When I read a story, I skip the explanations; yet the moment I begin to write one, I find that I must have an explanation.

This is Rudolf Rassendyll's introduction to his swashbuckling tale of intrigue, love, treachery, cold-blooded murder, and hot-blooded men. His account, privately circulated, has become the accepted truth amongst the few privileged to read it. 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. 

Rupert of Hentzau: reckless and wary, graceful and graceless, handsome, debonair, vile, and unconquered. Rupert flees the pages of Rassendyll's story a thwarted monster, never to be seen again; Rassendyll retires from the field with honour unstained' and the true King of Ruritania reigns in Streslau.

What a pile of shit.

My name is Jasper Detchard, and according to Rassendyll's narrative I am dead. This should give you some idea of his accuracy..."

This eye opening beginning of THE HENCHMEN OF ZENDA sets us up the rest of this clever, captivating, salacious but boisterously charming tale of derring-do and Victorian chicanery in a mythical country called Ruritania. This is, of course, one of those prickly little kingdoms which may be had for the taking by feckless good-looking, lusty villains who risk life and limb for a paycheck and the keen adventure of it all. Not a typical romance type story, but more an adventure with an ending that makes sense.

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would, but then I'm a big fan of Hope, Rafael Sabatini, Baroness Orczy and John Buchan. K.J. Charles gets the tone and the period and the characters just right. (Though occasionally her language is a bit too modern day, but not jarringly so.) Jasper Detchard is not your mom's nice guy hero, but (despite Rudolf Rassendyll and Anthony Hope) a hero nonetheless. And we even wind up feeling an inchoate affection for the handsome thug.

I don't recommend this book to everyone, just to those curious enough to want to read something a little different now and then because why the heck not?

This review from THE SEATTLE REVIEW OF BOOKS of THE HENCHMEN OF ZENDA spells it all out better than I can. I'm glad KJ Charles' books are getting this kind of attention.

Since it's Friday once again, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Illustration by Charles Dana Gibson to the frontispiece of the original 1898 MacMillan publication of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA.


  1. Well, no, Yvette, I am not as broadminded as you, BUT...I laffed at the title and continued laffing throughout your review. In fact, I'm still laffing. So, as long as you keep reviewing Charles's spoofs and keep me laffing, I won't hafta read Charles myself! ;)

    1. Oh take a chance, Mathew. Don't be a weenie. Oops, shouldn't have said that. HA! I get you, my dear. Thanks as always for the kind words.

    2. Walk on the wilde (sic) side, eh?

  2. i read Prisoner in my teens, and just recently read Rupert... surprisingly, i found the latter heavy going and it made me wonder how i ever coped with Prisoner(it couldn't have anything to do with aging, could it?)... regardless, this sounds like fun and i'll look for it... tx...

    1. Why is it that women are usually more broadminded than men? A question for the ages, I suppose. :) I loved the original book but never read the sequel. I'll make believe that Charles' book is the sequel. Sounds like a plan.

  3. "I understand that not everyone can be as broadminded as moi - though I often wonder why not."

    I love that! Made me chuckle. I often wonder exactly the same thing in this day and age. [...sigh...] Loved reading about these books. I used to regularly peruse the gay section at Unabridged Books (the best indie bookstore in Chicago) every now and then and I always marveled at the range of LGBTQ books that were mysteries, sci fi, "urban fantasy" or thrillers. Knowing that there is a series of "Georgette Heyer style" gay books (so to speak) really shouldn't be too surprising to me, but it was.

    BTW, the cover is a lot more G rated than I've seen for this type of thing. Usually they have muscled, half naked, hunks drooping and drooling over one another. ;^)

  4. Yeah, I'm not crazy about many romance covers, gay or otherwise. Most of them have little to do with the story and feature men and/or women who are not always as described in the book. I prefer this kind of cover. At any rate, with Kindle, you don't have to view the cover unless you want to. :) What surprised me most about my discoveries is that these books are very VERY well written. They're not fan-fiction rants in any way shape or form. Oh, I'm sure some of them are, but the couple of authors I've become interested in are as good, if not better, than the regular crop of Regency and/or romance authors I'm fond of. Color me surprised and pleased.

  5. I should definitely try this. But maybe read The Prisoner of Zenda first? I checked out the author's website and just what I see there gets me interested. Very interesting post, Yvette.

    1. Thanks, Tracy. I mean, here's my take: you can always stop reading. Right? I really do think that Charles is a damn good writer. THE PRISONER OF ZENDA is an evening's reading and you can pick up the file for free I believe at Guttenberg or one of the other book sites or if not, it's available for pennies. (Almost.) I loved it. And enjoyed this version as well.

  6. Rupert was my favourite character in Zenda so Yvette you have made me very keen to pick up this book. Now for a round of the libraries....


Your comment will appear after I take a look.