Hello out there! Time once again for a quick excursion outside the music world and into the realm of the written word.
That’s right, we’re doing another book report…
Natalie Zina Walschots – Hench: A Novel (William Morrow / Harper Collins; hardcover and digital 22 September 2020; paperback 09 November 2021)
Natalie Walschots (aka Natalie Zed) is a writer who has been hovering vaguely within my radar screen for years, chiefly because she had done the rounds of being published at pretty much all the major metal music blogs, back in the day when I was just breaking into the writing game myself. Fast-forward quite a bit, and I recently learned that Ms. Zed has authored a novel — the general synopsis and viewpoint of which seemed intriguing enough that I had to pick up a copy to check it out. And once I did, I could hardly put it back down for several days until reaching the exciting conclusion. Now that I have, I’d like to throw together a few words of my own to tell you about it.
Hench drops the reader into a universe where comic book heroes and villains are commonplace, just like those stories set in a city where evildoers with clever nicknames and outrageous costumes are so prevalent that the police commissioner has to keep a certain caped crusader and his sidekick on speed dial or constantly summon them with a specially-designed signal light. This story, though, digs much deeper into the lives of the bystanders who are only marginally involved or even uninvolved altogether with the primary heroic narrative.
It also, through the experiences of its narrator Anna (first introduced to us as Palindrome, a moniker she appears to regret — possibly because although her first name does spell the same thing in either direction, her last name definitely does not; but this little tidbit is probably included as an easter egg of sorts since it never gets brought up again), serves to add fully-developed characterization to the more typically anonymous and expendable henchpersons that would form the rank and file of your average Bond villain’s criminal enterprise or those that inhabit Dr. Evil’s lair.
While Anna doesn’t seem to have specifically sought out a malicious lifestyle, she took her clerical experience to a temp agency, just like so many of us have done, taking on whatever assignments are available, which just happens to be on the payroll of various villains or supervillains. When I was looking to temporary employment myself to start out my own career in accounting, all those years ago, I certainly didn’t have a particular passion for the public utility company they sent me to, but I applied my skills and work ethic to the best of my ability and that ultimately turned into a springboard for where I find myself today. So maybe I didn’t have a boss who plotted to kidnap and ransom family members of prominent politicians, but on a very basic level I found the protagonist’s story extremely relatable.
What was less relatable — in fact, out of four hundred pages worth of individuals boasting super-strength, cybernetically upgraded hearing and vision, or abilities to manipulate temperatures or even the actual molecules of surrounding matter, perhaps the most fantastical element — was the idea that our protagonist found herself severely injured after a run-in with a famed superhero, and unable to work for an extended period, yet at no point did she express any sort of panic about how (as a temporary/contract employee) she was going to manage paying for her hospital bills or the subsequent physical therapy. Although to be honest, this may have had less to do with the novel’s science-fictional setting than with its creator’s Canadian background.
Anyway, the lengthy downtime following that incident led Anna to put her devious powers of data analysis and spreadsheet creating to good use — concluding that the activity of superheroes tends to leave a trail of destruction and casualties on par with an earthquake or other natural disaster, and in fact relying on the exact same types of calculations for the cost (both monetary and in terms of human life) developed to quantify the toll of natural disasters. Armed with this knowledge, she decides that clearly something must be done to stop them.
The rest of the book details the budding hench (now ominously known as the Auditor) as she climbs the hierarchical ladder of one of the most powerful supervillains’ evil empire, although the lessons learned along the way often tend to have allegorical real-world value. For example, when someone is widely loved and respected, revealing big ugly truths about them will always have their most sycophantic supporters rally ever more tightly around them, staunchly denying anything — equally the case whether you’re talking about superhuman champions, politicians, religious authorities, those supposedly charged “to protect and serve,” beloved comedians or musicians, and on and on.
Although it takes place in an alternate dimension of sorts, the insights Hench provides into human nature are applicable everywhere — on top of being an action-packed read filled with exciting twists and turns, of course.
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