My Disappointment with The Henchmen of Zenda
Anthony Hope's 1894 The Prisoner of Zenda is one of my favourite novels and has inspired various adaptations—Robert A. Heinlein's Double Star and Dashiell Hammett's This King Business are well worth reading in their own right, whether you're a Zenda fan or not. So I had high hopes for K.J Charles' The Henchmen of Zenda. Which were disappointed. It's readable, it's not actively painful, it's just ultimately unsatisfying, and I think there are two interconnected reasons for this.
Firstly, The Henchmen of Zenda claims to be the "true" version of the events in The Prisoner of Zenda, ending in the villains' triumph. One of the best aspects of The Prisoner of Zenda is the memorable villains. The arch-villain is Black Michael and his main sidekicks are Detchard, who narrates Henchmen, and Rupert of Hentzau, who survives Prisoner and is so charismatic and compelling that Hope wrote an 1898 sequel, Rupert of Hentzau, in which Hentzau is the main villain. I found him more exciting, memorable and just fun than the heroes and I suspect a lot of Prisoner readers agree. So I was looking forward to the guilty pleasure of these wonderfully wicked people's wicked victory. The trouble is, they're not very villainous any more. Charles writes the heroes as incompetent, stuck-up assholes. The worst that can be said for the villains is that they're a bit sarcastic. Charles focusses on the heroes' pettiness and hypocrisy and never seems to pass up an opportunity for the villains to be irritatingly self-righteous. The famous Rupert of Hentzau is a humble hired gun. He's de-fanged.
I have some sympathy for Charles, because it's difficult to write a novel with villains as protagonists. It's quite rare. Maurice Leblanc did a good job with his gentleman thief, Arsène Lupin, and E.W Horning with Raffles the amateur cracksman. Ocean's Eight downplayed the villainous aspects of the protagonist by giving her the traditional good motive of revenge on the man who sent her to gaol. Readers want to sympathise with the protagonist. This can be difficult when the protagonist is so shamelessly bad as Prisoner Hentzau. But I think the answer is to embrace the wickedness of the character, and appeal to that side of the reader—the basic appeal, I think, of Raffles. Instead, Charles hopes that making the heroes insufferable will make the villains likeable. In Prisoner, Hentzau admits to Rassendyll that he understands gentlemen, he just isn't one himself. In Henchmen, there are no gentlemen. Of course, a villain protagonist doesn't have to be totally depraved—if he is, the reader won't want to connect with him any more. One of Raffles' few principles is that he doesn't steal from his hosts (when he's invited to stay, he steals from his fellow guests). But I feel he has to be recognisably on the side of the devils. Charles' Hentzau isn't. I was just left with a melodramatic period romance, which wasn't what I'd signed up for. Now, I understand that for the villains to win, they have to be smarter, sharper, more ruthless or just more outrageous than the heroes. But there's no need to make the heroes and incompetent bunch of blundering buffoons.
This connects with my second point. I felt Charles' laziest moment was giving Hentzau the compulsory Tragic Childhood Backstory that every protagonist seems to need these days. I think that was the moment that killed Henchmen for me, because it just felt so lazy. I felt it was the moment when she stopped trying to be original and just started ticking boxes. It's tempting to blame the Tragic Backstory on Harry Potter, but I blame Jane Eyre. If you really need to give your protagonist a horrible childhood because it's relevant for the plot, fine, but don't just shoe-horn it in because it's what everyone else is doing. I think part of the problem is misunderstanding what a "sympathetic" character is. It means a character you can root for, that you want to win. It doesn't mean someone you feel sorry for. Tragically, people really are abused in childhood. It's a big problem. This does not mean that every protagonist of every bloody book has to have had a horrible childhood. It's a lazy substitute for making an interesting, three-dimensional character. An actual sympathetic character. I honestly think it would be a refreshing change for a protagonist to have a wonderfully happy childhood and a family who love them. This is a particular problem for teen fiction, which I basically gave up on as a teenager partly because it was full of lazy, clichéd descriptions of people's clichéd horrible childhoods. However, as shown by Henchmen, it's increasingly inescapable in adult fiction. Again, just to be clear, real people's real abusive childhoods are tragic. Wheeling out the Tragic Childhood trope again and again every time you run out of ideas in a desperate grab for cheap sympathy is not. It's just going to get your book thrown across the room.
So, yeah. What Charles marketed, and should have written, and I think easily could have written—she had all the materials—was a brilliant, wickedly enjoyable swashbuckler, in which everyone's favourite bad guys win the day by cool wit and nerves of steal. What she wrote was a rambling collection of clichés, which constantly shies away from its own villainous nature with pathetically half-hearted attempts to be very, very virtuous… In which everyone's favourite bad guys are reborn as walking sob stories. No. Just no. Sorry, but no.