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.

Book Review: The First Girl Child by Amy Harmon

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: 47North
Publication Date: August 20th, 2019
Pages: 408, trade paperback
Source: Library

Bayr of Saylok, bastard son of a powerful and jealous chieftain, is haunted by the curse once leveled by his dying mother. Bartered, abandoned, and rarely loved, she plagued the land with her words: From this day forward, there will be no daughters in Saylok.

Raised among the Keepers at Temple Hill, Bayr is gifted with inhuman strength. But he’s also blessed with an all-too-human heart that beats with one purpose: to protect Alba, the first girl child born in nearly two decades and the salvation for a country at risk.

Now the fate of Saylok lies with Alba and Bayr, whose bond grows deeper with every whisper of coming chaos. Charged with battling the enemies of their people, both within and without, Bayr is fueled further by the love of a girl who has defied the scourge of Saylok.

What Bayr and Alba don’t know is that they each threaten the king, a greedy man who built his throne on lies, murder, and betrayal. There is only one way to defend their land from the corruption that has overtaken it. By breaking the curse, they could defeat the king…but they could also destroy themselves.

From ​the New York Times bestselling author comes a breathtaking fantasy of a cursed kingdom, warring clans, and unexpected salvation.

I originally was not going to read this book because the premise made me uneasy. The idea could easily fall into cissexism if not deconstructed properly. However, I decided to put my hesitation aside and check it out from the library. After seeing the high ratings and number of reviews on the book, I figured, it probably would be a solid read at least.

I was mistaken. 

I will readily admit that I’m hard to please when it comes to Norse fiction — even if an author gets the cultural details right, their portrayal of the gods could irritate me. My wariness increased when I came across a Bible verse at the beginning of the book. Once the book gets going, it doesn’t get better. 

I’m going to try to explain this as best I can. Harmon comes at Norse religion in a very Christian manner. Odin is treated as a benevolent, all-powerful father figure that everyone primarily prays to. Thor is mentioned here and there, as is Loki, who also plays a part in the fantasy island’s creation story. Furthermore, only nobles really prayed to Odin, and even then it was with a heavy dose of distrust. Odin is not someone you’re meant to readily believe and trust in. The commoners and farmers would pray to Thor or Frey, as they were the “Big Three” of Norse religion. 

At the beginning of the book, Dagmar rescues his sister’s newborn son. Instead of praying to Frigga or Freya to save the infant, he prays to Odin. Why? Odin has no familial attribute. He would have heard the prayers and gone, “What the Hel are you praying to me for? Leave me the fuck alone.” And that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, Odin’s going to come on by and see what he can do to “bless” the child. Freya finally gets a mention on page 37, but at nearly 100 pages in, the only gods mentioned were Odin, Thor, Loki, and Freya. Odin is the sole god who created the island the characters live on, again a rather Christian idea of a single deity being the one to create a world, whereas the Norse religion believes in multiple beings creating the world. 

Valhalla is treated as the be all, end all for the afterlife, with no mention of Hel or Freya’s afterlife. When a king is killed by an altar falling on him, another character mentions that “he will dine in Valhalla tonight”. Sorry, no. Only warriors who died in battle got into Valhalla or Freya’s realm. Everyone else goes to Hel. 

At another point, a father-to-be is waiting for his wife to give birth. In Viking times, the fathers were always in the room with the laboring mothers. Always. For days on end, even. There were rarely any exceptions to this rule. Yet the book’s character does not spend time in the room, and no one makes mention of this, suggesting to me that Harmon did not do any deep research into this. If it was a choice to move the plot along, even worse, in my opinion.

Oh, the author is also sure to include “not all men”. Because, you know. Gotta make sure the men are pacified, here.

I was already on the fence about it by this point, about 80 pages in, so I decided to skim. On page 225, we’re told that “only women can bear children”. 

Hello, cissexism! I was hoping I wouldn’t see you here. 

At that point, I decided to put the book aside. We are not going to get along. The deconstruction of gender roles is shallow at best. The religion is Christianized window dressing, and the research into the culture of the Vikings just isn’t there. I’m disappointed but not surprised.

Book Review: A Promise of Fire (Kingmaker Chronicles #1) by Amanda Bouchet

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Genre: Fantasy romance
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication Date: August 2nd, 2016
Pages: 441, mass market paperback
Source: Library

KINGDOMS WILL RISE AND FALL FOR HER…
BUT NOT IF SHE CAN HELP IT

Catalia “Cat” Fisa lives disguised as a soothsayer in a traveling circus. She is perfectly content avoiding the danger and destiny the Gods-and her homicidal mother-have saddled her with. That is, until Griffin, an ambitious warlord from the magic-deprived south, fixes her with his steely gaze and upsets her illusion of safety forever.

Griffin knows Cat is the Kingmaker, the woman who divines the truth through lies. He wants her as a powerful weapon for his newly conquered realm-until he realizes he wants her for much more than her magic. Cat fights him at every turn, but Griffin’s fairness, loyalty, and smoldering advances make him increasingly hard to resist and leave her wondering if life really does have to be short, and lived alone.

For the first 100 pages or so of this book, I was on board. Sure, I thought it was a little strange that it was a fantasy world yet used Greek gods and mythology. (The world is very obviously based on Greece and Rome, but it’s not an alternate world. It’s a fantasy world based on very real countries.) And yes, the modern language that was used was a little mismatched with the setting. (Also, Hades wouldn’t have a mortal lover, much less give her Cerberus to protect her circus. Sorry, did we all forget Minthe? Is that not a thing in this world?)

I liked Cat. I liked Griffin, even. I’m all for Mary-Sues and Cat definitely ticks off most of the list — tragic past? Check. Myriad and amazing powers? Yup. Beautiful, even when scarred? You got it! She has her flaws and an interesting personality to outweigh some of that. 

But then we spent nearly 230 pages on traveling. And granted, most of it was full of character and world development, so for most of it I wasn’t bored. But was it needed? I’m not sure. It fell into the same pit as Walk on Earth a Stranger — so much time was spent traveling that it eventually felt tedious. 

And then there’s the romance. I cringed when I read Griffin described as an “ultra-alpha hero”. But when we first meet him, he actually has a personality beyond what those words brings to mind. Cat gives as good as she gets with him and they had a good dynamic (if not one I, personally, care for. Bantering/bickering couples tend to bore me because it’s a lazy way for the author to shoe in some supposed chemistry between characters. That wasn’t so much a problem here… well, not for most of it.) So hey, he’s a good guy, and Cat tends to best him most of the time. I was fine.

And then. Oh boy, and then. The bantering/bickering dynamic falls into the pit of Cat constantly refusing Griffin’s advances and expressing disgust at the thought of kissing him. But oh, she’s just kidding! Her internal monologue tells us how very much she does want him, and Griffin, of course, totally knows this. He tells her that he knows she wants him, ignoring her protests, and by the time I stopped reading, pushing her up against walls and kissing her and touching her even as she’s saying “no.” But he can read her body language, doncha know, so he knows she’s into it.

Gag. This all happens while Cat is still his prisoner, of course, as she repeatedly refuses his offers to join “Beta Team”. Even if he’s calling her a companion, Cat doesn’t think of herself as one. The power dynamic is completely out of whack. For all their verbal sparring (some of it crossing into abusive territory in my opinion) the power dynamic was fine… but once it crossed the line into physical attacks, the bad taste in my mouth got worse. Cat can’t give consent. Period. Griffin kidnapped her and held her against her will. Until Cat has the power to leave of her own free will, Griffin is assaulting her

Then, of course, there’s a romantic rival. And of course, she immediately attacks Cat, saying that Cat is sleeping with the entire “Beta Team” (Griffin and his companions). They physically fight twice in both of the rival’s appearances. The other women in the book don’t fare any better — Cat’s mother is a psychopath bordering on cartoon villainy, and Griffin’s sisters are forgettable. Cat shows such disdain for poor Egeria who, while a little naive, has done nothing to earn it. Jocasta may end up being Cat’s friend, but I didn’t bother reading long enough to find out.

Obviously I’m in the minority on this one. Lots of people loved it. But these problems were just insurmountable for me, after an already rocky interest. I was fully prepared to give it three stars until we got to the girl hate, slut-shaming, and sexual assault.

I won’t be continuing the series.