Hench

Hench – Natalie Zina Walschots

For some time now, Anna has been picking up the odd office job through a temp agency supporting supervillains through minor tasks and clerical work.  Following an unexpected encounter with Supercollider, one of Earth’s most powerful heroes, Anna would be left with a severely broken leg.  Her devastating injury gives her the needed motivation to try and address the reckless actions of heroes and those they hurt in the line of duty.

Launching a website that keeps track of the collateral damage caused by heroes, her ingenuity lands her on the radar of Supercollider’s nemesis, Leviathan.  It isn’t long before Anna takes a job with Leviathan where she ups her game and focuses her attention on systematically ruining the life of Supercollider until he is ripe for the picking by her new boss.

Since the launch of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) in 2008, the world has been inundated with superhero culture.  Movies, TV shows and comics are bigger than ever and if you’re not a fan, it’s almost impossible to escape.  When I heard that the CBC had selected a novel featuring superheroes and supervillains for their annual Canada Reads competition, I was a bit skeptical.   Could this really be something new?  Haven’t we mostly seen it all by this point?  Thankfully, with HENCH, Natalie Zina Walschots proves there is plenty of gas left in the genre’s tank.

What I loved about this book was that it attempts to take “supers” to task.  I suppose this isn’t really new as it happens to be the central conflict that would lead up to the 2016 film Superman v. Batman (which sucks, by the way) in which Batman decides to take down Superman following the damage caused by his reckless pursuit of General Zod in 2013’s Man of Steel.  It also is the basis of Captain America: Civil War, where the government attempts to regulate superheroes.  However, in HENCH, it isn’t other superheroes or big government trying to take a stand – it’s the little guys, the forgettable underlings who are often disposable, who attempt to create consequences for the actions of the powerful.

I loved the idea of a temp agency that helps people find work as “henchmen” for evil doers.  The premise alone lends itself well to the type of humor that seems to be within Walschots’ wheelhouse.  There were more than a few moments that had me laughing out loud here.  It’s not all fun and games though.  This book gets right down to the pure selfishness of humanity and our desire to exact revenge in the name of self-righteousness.  Walschots muddies the waters enough that it makes total sense to root for the bad guys here.  Supercollider is a total dick.

There’s a wide cast of characters here, too.  Anna is a great protagonist.  She feels authentic and I never once questioned her actions or motivations.  Her relationship with Leviathan is a big part of the book and anytime they shared a scene together, I was glued to the page.  The action scenes were pretty good with some intense violence and graphic detail.  My biggest complaint is that I felt there were a few too many characters introduced, albeit minor, where I had a hard time keeping track of who was who.  I sort of wished I’d kept a notepad handy to write down some of these minor heroes and villains who were mentioned in passing.

Everyone seems to be talking about the ending in their reviews, so I’ll give my thoughts – I loved it.  There was some seriously gross body horror that I felt was well done by the author.  However, I was a little let down by the absence of a character who was integral to the first half of the book.  There’s a reason given for her absence, but I had hoped there would be some sort of resolution between her and Anna.  Alas, it was not to be.

Last year, I read over one hundred books before the year was done.  I expect to do the same in 2021.  I think the scenes that make up the last 50 pages or so of this book will stick with me when I’m looking to make up my top reads of the year.

Side note: I’m not sure how well this will fare in the Canada Reads debates. Every year I try and pick which book I believe will win when the dust settles, but I seem to be wrong more often than I’m right.  With the theme this year being “one book to transport us”, I can see HENCH having a pretty good chance given how enthralled I was with the world Walschots created.  But I guess we shall see.

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