Review of Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
I loved this book. If you're in for a new character-driven, superhero-focused, smart, wicked, and action-packed book, this is it.
I loooooved this book. Walschots hooked me immediately and completely, and I was going to be heartbroken if the story didn't hold up. But it did--and I was gleefully talking about the highlights of this book to the other people in this house frequently enough that they were likely a leetle irritated and ready for me to finish.
If you're in for a new character-driven, superhero-focused, smart, wicked, and action-packed book, this is it.
Anna is a hench. She's an expendable part of a data entry pool and works boring temp jobs...for villains. It's not like she's in the line of fire or taking part in dastardly plots. She sits behind a computer, she needs the steady paycheck--and she's got a grudging respect for the purity of the revenge missions of the "bad guys" (and girls, and others, including their sidekicks) who help her pay rent. She wears winged eyeliner, she doesn't put up with any good old boy chauvinism from heroes or anyone else, and she's so smart, her talents are probably going to waste.
Then she's unexpectedly and accidentally involved in a violent clash of good and evil and is badly injured by a gallingly shiny superhero. She doubles down on her contempt for the good guys and her annoyance at how others see them as infallible when they're far from blameless. She digs into determining the actual costs--in lives and financially--of heroes' clumsy bashing around in the name of duty, and she sets out to reveal the details of the dark side of the superhero myth. (This part reminded me, in a good way, somewhat of the cost analysis of heroes that takes place in Incredibles 2.)
Her clever behind-the-scenes revelations catch the eye of the darkest and most mysterious villain of all, Leviathan, who wants Anna on his staff full time. She's uncomfortable with commitment, but her new employer is giving her a blank check of resources to enact clever, systematic, whole-scale revenge on heroes. It's too incredible an opportunity to pass up. She assembles a team dedicated to her and to their (dark, brooding, sometimes surprisingly kind, and often silent) boss, building a "cruel little department" that begins to shoulder a large portion of the organization's work.
Anna starts to believe that her talents (she has discovered a flair for data mining, moving around information, manipulating social media, and knowing her superhero foes' habits and weaknesses) might allow her to teach some of these golden boys and girls a lesson--even if it also requires her to reluctantly come out from behind the desk for some old-fashioned battling now and again. She's growing closer to her boss Leviathan, and sometimes her taste for hero destruction seems to be overpowering even his own.
Walschots's writing and pacing in Hench is wonderful. She builds the world in her book gracefully--her job as a game designer probably plays into this ability. She provides lots of action; sometimes poignant internal conflict; some dark humor; and she builds history for the characters by retracing old superhero and villains' rivalries.
Anna's singular, ruthless mission of revenge shapes her emotionally and physically and affects her interpersonal relationships. At times she doesn't recognize herself much anymore. But she can't stop trying to destroy the heroes' false perfection that is devastating so much of the world, and her struggle feels noble in many ways, even if her methods are not. She emerges as more brave than she had believed herself to be, and as she evolves, Walschots is able to make the reader question what good and evil really mean by having us view the hero/villain construct through Anna's eyes.
I was delighted by the superheroes' and villains' names, their various supernatural abilities, and their complicated relationships--as well as how henches and sidekicks continued to crop up in others' employ, following the money and reinventing themselves as people might in any profession. There are performance reviews; the need for higher-ups to sign off on manpower requests and project plans; and other mundane concerns--except for the entertaining fact that they all center around superheroes and villains and their passion for mutual destruction.
The one problem I have here is that while the tone of the ending feels like an appropriate level of wrap-up, issues remain (regarding June--!; Leviathan; Quantum; and Anna and her future, her mission, and her potential supernatural abilities) which deserve more delving into and will require another book in order to satisfy ME personally. Yet there is no number on this book, nor is there any mention of a sequel. I just hope that Walschots is with me on this and is already hard at work on the next book.
I read a prepublication copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley and William Morrow; it's scheduled for publication on September 22.
What did you think?
Walschots is a game designer who has published two books of superhero-focused poetry (!), but although this is her first book, I thought her story-building and the story's depth felt effortless. More, please!
This book brought to mind The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee. Both offer unlikely heroes, action, and some dark humor, although Yee's young adult book is more playful, as are its examinations of good and evil. The dry humor in Hench also reminded me in a way of the Murderbot series (I review the first three books here). If you like this book, you might like those as well.
I first mentioned Hench in my Greedy Reading List Three Books I'm Reading Now, 9/16/20 Edition.