Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots is confident in its conviction that bad guys can do good by being bad, and it achieves a rare feat – it makes superhero fiction fresh again. It starts light and breezy, and its delicious set up – where the bad guys’ minions (aka henches) are the stars – hits on all cylinders the whole way through. It’s quite the achievement in an oversaturated genre where superheroes are a dime a dozen. The henches live a precarious life being in the line of fire and one hench’s experience with the novel’s superman creates a ripple effect that changes everything. The story becomes a serious take on the consequences of heroism and the collateral damage and years of livelihood lost by those affected by circumstances outside their control.
The heroes are recognizable archetypes, but the villains are the ones with extraordinary depth and pathos. The book attempts to be a cultural touchstone, sensitive to today’s issues but never beating the reader over the head. I love its sensibility, nuance, and sheer swagger in bringing this world to life.
There were no missteps for me, and whenever I thought the concept for the book might be a novelty that would wear itself out, another layer is revealed. This happens over and over and draws you in.
Walschots invests a lot in her main character Anna and it pays off in dividends – Anna goes from being a casual baddy on the fringes to having a house right in the heart of Wickedville. I haven’t had this much fun with or affection for a character in a while. Anna feels like one of those characters who comes to life on the page with very little effort. One of the biggest achievements of the book is believing the danger and the fear and doubt that plagues Anna and her resolve to overcome it.
I have to think the author is paying homage to one of sci-fi’s greatest baddies (Scorpious from Farscape) with her own memorable antagonist Leviathan. Anna’s relationship with him is what anchors and elevates the book to more than just another story told from the bad guy point of view. The tale gets stronger as it goes along because there’s a level of deception and brokenness in the world of heroes that only the villains seem to understand, and that is what motivates the ‘best’ of the baddies – to expose the hypocrisy and sham that the heroes represent.
Hench achieves automatic geek status with the book’s single pop culture reference when evoking sci-fi TV classic Farscape directly. It helps us understand exactly the danger Anna is facing as a mere mortal in this world of terrestrial gods and how far she’s come in this tale to believe in something so much that she would die for it. Anna quotes Farscape’s D’Argo as she goes to face her doom: Fear accompanies the possibility of death. Calm shepherds its certainty.
Hench is a nuanced look at the relationships we choose to foster, circumstances that force us to take action, and the consequences we must face when the reaper comes to collect his debt.
The ending is superb and the characters, just like the reader, are left to decide what toll they are willing to pay in the never ending fight between good and evil.