Book Review: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: September 22nd, 2020
Pages: 416, hardcover
Source: Library

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.  

This is my own fault: I’ve been over the whole “superheroes actually aren’t good people” thing for a few years now. It’s boring and I’ve rarely seen it done well. So in hindsight, I’m not sure why I picked this up, except maybe I was drawn in by the promise of an angry feminist look at superheroes as stated by the summary. If your feminism is of the white brand, it accomplishes the job. 

The internalized misogyny in this book is apparent throughout. Anna goes after women in decidedly misogynistic ways, the worst being when she targets a Maori superhero by the name of Quantum Entanglement by publicizing one of her affairs. Quantum gets a bigger role in the third act, but it doesn’t really make up for the fact that a white woman used a Maori woman’s sexuality to shame her and turned it into a weapon to use against this world’s equivalent of Superman. It’s a very 2010s tumblr idea of feminism, where if a woman gets to be as bad as the men, she’s a feminist icon. That’s not how it works, and the fact that this is never examined in the novel is a glaring misstep.

There’s also two other women who get targeted by Anna in misogynistic ways — one has an ex who stalks her, so Anna gets him to escalate his stalking, and the other is a mother who’s pregnant again, so Anna uses her children against her by having one kidnapped. Anna uses women without any hesitation, then has the nerve to feel guilty about it after the women have to deal with what her plotting has done. 

Which brings me to my other problem: The lack of self-awareness. Anna goes on about how two-faced superheroes are, then says that it’s okay when villains act the exact same way because “they’re honest about it.” So it’s okay when children get kidnapped or harmed when villains do it because, hey, they’re villains, they don’t claim to be good people? For someone as smart as the author kept telling us Anna was, this logic did not hold up. 

The characters are all weirdly lacking in history, as well. We never delve into Anna’s history–her childhood–to see how she might have gotten to the point where she was doing temp jobs for villains. The only characters who get any history, in fact, are most of the men. The women mostly only seem to exist in the present for story purposes. Frankly, some of the lagging pacing in the third act could have been cut out in favor of providing some backstory. 

The world itself, at least, is interesting enough to keep reading, and the dialogue and camaraderie between most of the characters was genuine. It just wasn’t enough to balance out the huge issues I listed above. 

Hench tried to claim it’s a feminist takedown of the superhero genre, but it’s really just more of the same white feminism that everyone grew sick of ages ago. It aims for nuance and falls decidedly short, and its attempt at deconstruction is decidedly half-baked.

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