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Review – Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

What is Hench?

“This book is fast, furious, compelling, and angry as hell.” — Seanan McGuire, New York Times bestselling author

The Boys meets My Year of Rest and Relaxation in this smart, imaginative, and evocative novel of love, betrayal, revenge, and redemption, told with razor-sharp wit and affection, in which a young woman discovers the greatest superpower—for good or ill—is a properly executed spreadsheet.

Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn’t glamorous. But is it really worse than working for an oil conglomerate or an insurance company? In this economy?

 As a temp, she’s just a cog in the machine. But when she finally gets a promising assignment, everything goes very wrong, and an encounter with the so-called “hero” leaves her badly injured.  And, to her horror, compared to the other bodies strewn about, she’s the lucky one.

So, of course, then she gets laid off.

With no money and no mobility, with only her anger and internet research acumen, she discovers her suffering at the hands of a hero is far from unique. When people start listening to the story that her data tells, she realizes she might not be as powerless as she thinks.

Because the key to everything is data: knowing how to collate it, how to manipulate it, and how to weaponize it. By tallying up the human cost these caped forces of nature wreak upon the world, she discovers that the line between good and evil is mostly marketing.  And with social media and viral videos, she can control that appearance.

It’s not too long before she’s employed once more, this time by one of the worst villains on earth. As she becomes an increasingly valuable lieutenant, she might just save the world.

A sharp, witty, modern debut, Hench explores the individual cost of justice through a fascinating mix of Millennial office politics, heroism measured through data science, body horror, and a profound misunderstanding of quantum mechanics. 

Review

HENCH by Natalie Zina Walschots was a novel I was recommended by many individuals after I finished my GETTING STARTED WITH SUPERHERO FICTION list. I heard a lot of good about it and was interested in picking it up. I’m a big fan of the “Capepunk” genre that basically amounts to literature where stories get into the deconstructive and reconstructive building blocks of superhero stories in a way that most superhero comics never can. There’s plenty of deconstruction out there, don’t get me wrong, but these stories are memorable primarily because they’re so rare when status quo is God.

The premise is Anna Tromedlov is a professional henchwoman. At the start of her career, it is simply a job she’s taken because she sees no difference between it and any other employment in the gig economy. It seems to be a somewhat lighthearted parody with henchman temp agencies and the primary concern for people like Anna being that the Eel is a little too New Age and touchy feely (in the psychological way versus handsy one). That’s when Anna becomes an involuntary part of a kidnapping and is thrown through a wall by Supercollider. It results in her being horribly injured and psychologically traumatized.

Without spoiling much of the rest of the book, Anna ends up using her data gathering skills to start blogging about the collateral damage from superheroes. Much like among portions of real life, the citizens of this superhero universe don’t care if henchmen are crippled or killed by superheroes. The death toll and collateral damage turn out to be far in excess of anything that should be tolerated. This leads her to being recruited by a mysterious supervillain named Leviathan and is set upon a path to destroy superheroes with bad publicity.

Hench has a lot of similarity to The Boys, both the TV show and comic, with a world obsessed with protecting mediocre white male superheroes as well as covering up what can best be described as police brutality. The latter being a very topical issue, well, always. I was expecting this to become a book about how Anna’s reporting would reveal just how awful the system of superheroes were and how people kept proping up an evil system (as militarized policing is) because of false narratives about how dangerous it would be without heavily armed “heroes.” Instead, the book went in a surprisingly different direction.

Specifically, the book went in a very different direction that is another similarity to The Boys: the unexpectedly black and gray morality of the setting. In simple terms, I expected Anna to be a sympathetic everywoman throughout the story but, uh, no. She’s actually genuinely evil. Not in a “ha-ha” cackling supervillain sort of way but a banality of evil, “I feel kind of bad for destroying innocent people’s lives but not so bad to stop” way. Her method of fighting superheroes is doxxing them in a tabloid reporter sort of way and frequently gets people killed utterly unrelated to the people who actually harmed her.

This isn’t to say this is a bad choice of narrative but it did surprise me. It also leaves a question of whether Anna is an unreliable narrator after all. Yeah, she feels bad about when her boss is going to force a child to cut off their own fingers but aren’t the real victims the people who kidnapped the child in the first place? Yes, she may send a hit squad to murder a teenage sidekick in hopes of hurting his boss but that guy really is a danger so whatever means to bring him down are justified. Getting the ex-boyfriend of a superheroine killed is just a good way to undermine them publicly. So who is the real villain? Supercollider is a scummy sort of guy but are all heroes?

Overall, I really enjoyed Hench and think it is a surprisingly deep read. You have to question everything being fed by Anna’s quirky likable persona that hides, well, an absolutely evil core. You feel bad for her until you realize how much of it is her own making. Yet, just because she’s awful doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a point. As a fan and author of superhero prose fiction, two thumbs up.

Available here

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