Fantasy · Science Fiction

Hench – Natalie Zina Walschots

You know a book is good when you put it down after finishing a four-hour marathon read from beginning to end and simply go, “Wow.” That’s how I feel about Hench, the new novel from Natalie Zina Walschots.

Image from Goodreads

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.

I have always loved stories about imperfect people, especially in a superhero context. Stories that explore the grey areas of personality and the fact that very rarely is someone all good or all bad. Very rarely does a villain not have some kind of backstory that explains why they’ve made the choices they have. Hench is just one such exploration, and Walschots does it masterfully. I hate to compare Hench to other things, but if I had to go with modern literary sales pitches, I’d say it is Megamind meets The Boys.

Atmospherically, the book is kind of dark, without straying into grimdark. It’s not a warm-fuzzies kind of story. But to balance the darkness, Walschots weaves in wry humor and thoughtfulness that is so kind it’s almost painful, knowing that that kind of kindness might just be the most fantastical element of the whole story.

The characters all feel like real people, the kind of people who end up in places they maybe didn’t expect, but one way or another here they are because bills have got to be paid. Anna is very relatable, and I can really sympathize with parts of her story.

But what I really loved, was that it’s practically competence porn. Shows like The West Wing are enjoyable to me because I love witnessing excellent people do excellent things. There’s nothing more satisfying than a job well done. And Anna is very competent. It’s a dream watching Anna accomplish many things, and do it all beautifully well. That’s not to say she’s perfect, mistakes aren’t made and everything goes without a hitch – what a boring book that would be. But Anna is good at what she does.

Hench is such a good read. I laughed and cringed and couldn’t put the book down as I raced the clock to the end. And even once I was done, my mind just kept chewing on this scene or that. It’s so good.

I preordered my copy months ago, on a tweet-thread recommendation from Seanan McGuire and I absolutely don’t regret it. You won’t either. Hench hit shelves just this last Tuesday, September 22. It’s available wherever books are sold. Do yourself a favor and pick a copy up today.

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