You know when you expect one thing from a book and you get something else? That was me and THE HENCHMEN OF ZENDA. The biggest misunderstanding we had was that I thought it would be a romance, but it was more of a suspense/adventure story with some romantic elements. And it's weird to review a book that is not a book I would normally read.
THE HENCHMEN OF ZENDA was written to be a queer retelling of The Prisoner of Zenda, a Victorian pulp novel. THE HENCHMEN OF ZENDA makes a protagonist of a villain from the original. Jasper Detchard is a scoundrel and mercenary and sometimes charming, but always snarky. As a favor to a friend, he takes a job with Michael Elphberg, the son of the king who for reasons cannot inherit the crown. Michael has a plan (it's actually a lot of plans) to get the crown and so he hires his henchmen to assist.
The schemes to get the crown twist and turn and result in a lot of double crosses and alliances and changing goals. In the midst of all that, Detchard begins a sexual relationship with one of the other henchmen, Rupert of Hentzau. The plans to get Michael the crown take up much of the book and any hint of romance is really background noise. Detchard and Hentzau continue their affair even though it has been forbidden by Michael. And the affair amounts to two men who like each other and seem to enjoy plotting intrigues together. Permanence is not anything either expects or requires.
The relationship between the men approximates friendship for two hired swords. One day, I'd like to discuss the end and if that amounts to an HEA or an HFN or if it matters. It very much challenges the idea of what constitutes an HEA because I’m certain the characters think this is the best possible ending.
[Editor's Note: KJ Charles has written a blog post in which she talks about the HEA and how this book fits in. She says: I would probably call it "pulp adventure with strong romantic elements", and romance readers who need to know about endings first should check my GR review and click on the spoilers.]
And now, most of what I have to say about the book is that it was not for me. I walked in expecting something akin to Charles's historical romances but with sword fights. (This was my fault not investigating everything Charles has said about the book.) Instead, I got some sword fights, with a few sex scenes, and a lot of treasonous plotting. It's so hard for me to judge the book because I have no idea what to consider good when it comes to books about mercenaries plotting to overthrow the king. The politics of the story dragged for me, and it takes up enough of the book that I found it muted the humor. There were things I quite liked: the friendships, Detchard’s snark, and the undercurrent of feminism that ends up guiding the story. One thing that caught me more than once was that the story would be so much more interesting if Toni, Detchard's courtesan friend, or Princess Flavia was the main character.
I'll end here because confessing that the book was not for me practically negates any opinions I have on the book. However, I will say that if you are expecting a historical romance, this book is not one.
Content warnings: domestic violence, child in peril, blackmail, murder, death, stabbing, gunshot wounds, poisoning, drowning, voyeurism