Review | Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

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.

“As I read the stories and analyzed the sentiment reports, I knew what I needed was some good, old-fashioned scheming.”

I first picked this up because the synopsis reminded me a bit of Vicious, but with modern office workers and data analysts instead of medical students. On the surface, it lives up to that comparison: heroes whose actions aren’t that distinguishable from the villains, vengeance, and snark. Where Hench really differentiates itself is in its societal commentary, including critiques of social media in the information age, the dangers of hero worship bestowed upon public figures, and the bleak employment prospects that we accept to support ourselves in this economy.

It’s no secret that I love morally grey characters, and Hench has them in spades. Hench, really, is Anna’s villain origin story: after a superhero injures her on the job, she arms herself with data proving that good PR is the only thing that separates heroes from villains. Of course, public perception can be swayed, and Anna sets out to ruin the “golden boy” image that many of these heroes hold. It’s easy for readers to accept Anna’s actions here, but as her plan for revenge escalates far beyond petty pranks into some pretty horrific territory, you can’t help but feel complicit in it.

Overall, Hench was an excellent deconstruction of the typical superhero story. It was snarky, dark, and full of moral quandaries, and I hope that the slightly open ending leaves room for more stories with these characters.

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