Review: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Review: Hench by Natalie Zina WalschotsHench by Natalie Zina Walschots
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, urban fantasy
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow on September 22, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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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.

My Review:

Hench is decadently delicious villainous competence porn.

I loved every page of it. Which doesn’t mean that I wasn’t a bit squicked out at some of Anna’s decisions. But then, so is Anna. She just goes ahead and does them anyway – and generally does them very, very well.

Still, she makes us wonder what she might have been – and we’re supposed to. That’s part, but only part, of her story.

In a way, Anna’s story is the behind-the-scenes of what would happen if the Avengers – and all of the other superhero stories, were real life. Because that entire mess in the first Avengers movie, where Loki and his forces seriously mess up New York City? There would be one hell of a lot of collateral damage.

How much will it cost to clean all that up? Who pays for all of the many hospitalizations and years if not decades of physical and psychological therapy that all the survivors are going to need? Who pays all their bills while they’re incapacitated? We’re meant to think that the villains got their just desserts, but the ordinary people who just happened to be on one of the skyscrapers that got crashed or trashed – what about them?

There have been superhero stories before where society has taken a look at that damage and decided that it just isn’t worth it, like the marvelous After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn. Even The Incredibles, under its golly-gee-whiz-bang, begins in a place where all the supers have been forced to stand down for everyone else’s own good.

In a whole lot of ways, Hench takes that story and backtracks it into a story of supervillain vs superhero vs the tyranny of spreadsheets, and gives us a story about all the “little people” who stand behind a superhero or supervillain. After all, someone has to do the jobs that Gru assigned to his Minions in the Despicable Me series.

I could say that this is a story where one of those minions becomes a supervillain in their own right. Or certainly rises from being merely a hench to an actual kick, meaning a sidekick. Because this isn’t Leviathan’s story. It isn’t Supercollider’s story, either.

It’s the story of Anna, a hench caught in the middle between a supervillain and a superhero, who decides to get her life back by taking down that superhero the only way she can – with spreadsheets.

Escape Rating A++: There are two ways to read this story. One is that it is simply a delightful supervillain vs. superhero story where the villain actually wins. Sorta/kinda. But on the surface this is a romp and it’s easy to ignore the collateral damage of Anna’s actions, or blame them on her opponents – as superhero stories generally do.

And that’s the level I initially read the story at, because I was looking for a world to sink into for a few hours, and Hench certainly provided that escape.

But that’s not all there is to the story.

The first layer underneath is still a lot of fun stuff about the world in which superheroes and villains operate. That while creatures like the Minions make for fun cartoons, in a world of real supers there would be real work that would need to get done.

That’s where Anna and her friends and colleagues come in. They are all henches. Or meat. Henches are functionaries, hanging around to make the supervillain look important, doing the jobs that any large organization needs to get done. Meat are muscle, the people who make the supe look deadly and dangerous. They all effectively sign up to be cannon fodder if an encounter with a supe goes badly.

They are there to do a job, and quite often a job that could be done as easily in a non-supe organization. Which, come to think of it, might have every bit as evil a purpose as the average supervillain. Which is kind of the point.

Anna and her friends are just regular people doing regular jobs who just happen to be doing that job for supervillains. The portrait of their lives, their work and especially their friendships underpins the whole story with a sense of reality.

They’re real folks doing an unreal job.

But dig deeper, and there’s even more about the nature of heroism and villainy, and who decides which is which. That Supercollider believes that superheroes create their own nemeses feels truer than true. He created his own downfall with his own actions, and he was enabled by organizations that have a vested interest in protecting the labeling of heroes vs. villains at any cost.

Because, in the end, it turns out that they create both.

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