Practical Villainy: A Review of Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots

This is no longer the Golden Age of Superheroes.  We are long passed the silver and bronze ages as well.  In the world of comic books, and superheroes in particular, we currently find ourselves the Modern Age.  A literary and creative time period where superheroes cannot be taken at face value anymore, where the implications of people with extraordinary powers must be considered and no longer ignored.  We have seen this trend in both comic books and film, where a certain practicality has been applied to thinking about superheroes and their effects on the world.  Readers and consumers of superhero fiction are not content with just watching Superman demolish buildings in order to stop the latest villain’s world-ending plot.  We need creators to consider the people in those buildings.  There are generations of people today—like millennials and gen Z—who have been raised on tragedy and destruction.  Terrorist attacks, never ending school shootings, and plagues were out childhood.  Like these disasters, literature cannot ignore the destruction and death caused just off-page when superheroes and supervillains clash.  Because, when you truly think about it, the idea of a superman in real life is horrifying.

Hench is the debut novel of writer Natalie Zina Walschots, and it truly is a tale of superheroism—and supervillainy—for the modern era.  Instead of following a hero or villain, or even an intrepid reporter, the point-of-view shifts to one Anna Tromedlov, a young henchperson, hench for short, employed by a dedicated temp agency for pairing villains with their staff.  As in the real world, the gig economy is steadily taking over every facet of modern life, leaving no industry safe.  Hench approaches its subject by firmly placing the setting in the modern-day, or just in the future, and Walschots writes with modern sensibilities in mind.  It seems not even supervillains are immune from office politics and Walschots goes to great pains in showing the reality of how these systems would work in a modern setting, with the book’s first supervillain acting more like a Silicon Valley tech bro.  At first, it seems like just the villains have been modernized, while the heroes appear straight from the pages of comic books.  However, that is just the surface.  At first light, satirical, and funny, the story does take a darker turn after the plot’s igniting incident.  However, the turn never feels out of place.  Rather, it is the natural progression for Hench, and only serves to draw readers further into the story.

The novel’s plot contains more twists and turns that I initially expected, and they are best experienced first-hand.  You will not find any major spoilers here.  At the start of the novel, Anna is a temp in search of a job, waiting for her agency to find a job opening with a supervillain that meets her needs.  Preferably working from home.  Anna is very clear at the start that she has no desire for anything dangerous, and would not even report into an office.  She prefers boring data entry, although she is extremely talented at it, a fact that will become increasingly important as the plot progresses.  For her, information is the true superpower.  Very early on, she lands a gig working for Electric Ell, a supervillain tech bro, not dissimilar from men like Elon Musk, who is unnervingly interested in how his henches feel.  And he wants honest answers.  While played light and ridiculous at first, things turn more serious when Electric Eel includes Anna in his henchperson lineup during a televised ransom demand to the city’s mayor, only brining her along to show that he employs female henches as well as male.  For a few million dollars, Electric Eel will not will not mind control the mayor’s son to cut off the very tip of his pinky.  The event is interrupted by the explosive entrance of Supercollider, the book’s Superman analogue, with a similar powerset.  To stop Electric Eel and rescue the mayor’s son, Supercollider brings destruction.  Anna’s leg is shattered from a small push, and multiple noncombatant henchpeople are killed.  The death and destruction far outweigh the crime, and Electric Eel escapes.

This is the inciting incident for Hench and sets the plot in motion for the remainder of the novel.  After being released from the hospital, Anna is shocked by her injury, and her trauma, at the hands of this superhero.  She cannot believe that she is alone, that this sort of collateral damage is not more widespread.  So, Anna turns to her talents with data collection and entry, researching the destructive path left in the wake of superheroes, and attempt to quantify it.  She very quickly realizes that superheroes are not like men and women.  Rather, they are more akin to natural disasters.  In one of the most fascinating sequences of the novel, where Walschots quotes real-world research into quantifying the effect of natural disasters, Anna begins measuring the damage caused by superheroes in both dollars and lifeyears lost.  How many combined years of life were suddenly extinguished because a superhero decided to collapse a building to catch one villain?  The results are staggering, and entirely believable.  Anna’s efforts are, of course, solely focused on superheroes and their destruction, given her experiences.  In many ways, parallels can be drawn between the over-reactions of superheroes to the over-reactions of police in the real world when faced with a crime.  The criminal may still be culpable for the initial crime, but the way in which authorities respond can easily cause more widespread destruction than the crime itself.

Another critical facet of Hench is body horror.  This book, with two sequences in particular, is not for the faint of heart.  Walschots does not shy away from the descriptions of what Anna experiences and witnesses, grounding her approach to superheroism even more.  As Anna is dragged deeper into the world and learns more about the inner workings of super-powered society behind the scenes, the horror both she and readers see increases.  It begins with Anna’s own injuries at the start of the novel, which are actually minor compared to what comes later.  Still, the way in which Walschots handles Anna’s newfound disability is refreshing in that it does not get ignored.  Anna relies on a cane for the entire remainder of the novel, with the cane becoming such a central piece of her character that re-reading the beginning, with her walking without it, feels unnatural.  Her recovery and lingering aches and pains are also not hand-waved away in the way many superhero stories choose to heal major injuries.  There are no magic pills or miracle technologies.  The world Walschots presents, much like our own, is brutal.

Anna is not alone in the story, to both her and out benefit.  She begins the tale with the best friend in the form of another henchwoman, and gains more friends and trusted coworkers as she is drawn deeper into the world of supervillainy.  But many of her connections do not arrive until she finally finds permanent employment under the supervillain known as Leviathan.  Long since retired from the overt villainy industry, he now prefers to work behind the scene and manage his corporation.  Anna develops her strongest friendships in the novel working for him and alongside her team to utilize the data of superhero destruction to fight back.  However, while Anna does have time for a social life, the job always comes first.  In many other stories, the author would find a way to push a romance into the mix as well.  However, Walschots understands that romance is not something exactly on Anna’s list of priorities, as busy and vengeful as she is.  However, the book hints many times at something growing between her and Leviathan, even if it may seem one-sided on her part, even as she gains a supervillain name for herself under his employ: The Auditor.

Thankfully for everyone who has read Hench, myself included, Walschots is working on a sequel.  While a release window has not even been hinted at yet, I selfishly hope it is sometime soon, although I also hope Walschots will take all the time she needs to craft it well.  Hench, after a climax that is both very satisfying and borderline heart-breaking, does not so much end on a cliffhanger as it does on the promise of more.  An opening of the world, and expanding of Anna’s goals, and a cold dread that things could go so, so much worse for our villain.  Aside from a thoroughly engaging story, Anna is a great main character, and I enjoyed each page I got to spend in her head.  As much as I loved Hench, finishing the book was bittersweet, knowing that this is the end for now.  This is a world, and a story, I cannot wait to see more of.

Hench can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 4 days

Next on the List: The Frozen Crown, by Greta Kelly

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