henchmen of zendaRating: 4.5 stars
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Length: Novel

Jasper Detchard has disgraced his family, having been thrown out of the military and generally being a guy of questionable morality. That doesn’t bother Jasper much, and he mostly travels around having adventures and getting into trouble, selling his services and his skills with the blade to the highest bidder. Most recently, Jasper has been hired by Michael Elphberg, half brother to the future king of Ruritania. While Michael’s brother is next in line for the throne (given Michael is both a bastard and doesn’t have the requisite red hair to make folks forget that fact), Michael is interested in seeing himself take the crown and has hired Jasper and several other men to help him make that happen.

When Jasper arrives at Michael’s stronghold in the town of Zenda, he realizes that an old friend needs his help, and so while still ostensibly working for Michael, his goals now lie in a different direction. But he must continue to be Michael’s loyal servant in public, both to advance his new aims, as well as to keep himself alive as Michael’s jealousy and need for absolute loyalty make anything else impossible. When a new man, Rupert of Hentzau, arrives to join the team, Michael warns Jasper to stay away from the him, and although disappointed, Jasper is determined to do that just; he has higher goals he needs to focus on. But as the men spend more time together, Jasper finds himself charmed by the younger, gorgeous, peacock of a man and staying away isn’t as easy as he anticipated.

Overthrowing a king without anyone becoming suspicious of Michael isn’t easy, especially when Jasper’s own goals are not totally in line. Soon Jasper finds himself in the middle of a double cross (then triple cross, then quadruple) as he tries to stay one step ahead of Michael and his brother, protect his friend, hide his own actions, and keep himself and Rupert alive.

The Henchmen of Zenda is a gay/bi retelling of the classic story, The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope. What Charles has done here is quite interesting, as this is more than a retelling that simply changes the gender/sexuality of the main characters. Instead, Charles has given us a new version of the story told from the POV of a side character in the original, painting him and Jasper as the heroes. It is presented as the “true” version of the story, rather than what is detailed in Hope’s book, coming to light now after Jasper’s death as he reveals all about what really happened during the events of the original tale. It gives the story a delightful spin that I could appreciate even not having read The Prisoner of Zenda. In fact, given that I was not at all familiar with the original story, I avoided reading that book’s summary until after finishing Henchmen so I was coming at this book totally cold, though Jasper references the original story and even quotes from it at times, so it pretty clear the basics of that book from reading this one. So you can definitely enjoy this story without having read the book upon which it is based, though I would venture if you were familiar with the original tale, Charles’ twist on the POV would be even more fun.

And this book is definitely fun. It is a rollicking adventure with two heroes who don’t have much of a moral compass and don’t really care. While it is clear that Jasper will go to lengths to protect his friend, beyond that he has no problem with lying, stealing, cheating, and killing. Nor does Rupert for that matter, and this fact makes both men delightfully entertaining, if not particularly reputable. Each man has his own ultimate end goal out of this situation and neither is much bothered by who they might have to hurt or kill to make that happen. This leads us to some fantastic twists and turns as the men betray, double cross, and out maneuver those that are in their way. Each time I thought I knew the plan and the players, a new twist would come around that changed things up and it made the story incredibly exciting, particularly toward the latter parts of the book when things are moving fast and furiously. The men are not motivated by patriotism or other noble goals, but instead by their own sense of adventure and who will line their pockets. Rather than Rupert and Jasper’s lack of traditional morality being a hindrance, it allowed the story to flow in all kinds of directions as the men regroup and out think those around them.

The relationship between the men isn’t the main focus here, but we do see them develop from attraction to affection, despite themselves. While both men are clear that their own aims take priority over their feelings for each other, as well as that neither wants this to be an affair of the heart, it is clear that they care about each other and want to keep the other safe if possible. While they don’t get a traditional HEA, there is a happy ending for the men together and things wrap up nicely and quite fittingly for the story. I loved that even as Rupert and Jasper are in the midst of this grand adventure, we see the tenderness between them.

So I found this one quite entertaining. I loved that while these two men may be a bit lax in the morality department, they live life with joy and a spirit of adventure as their guide. They are loyal to those they truly care about, and beyond that, are happy to go where the world takes them. It makes for a really fun story and a very clever twist on a classic tale.

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