Natalie Zina Walschots’ 2020 Hench is a standalone superhero novel. Well, superhuman novel.
Professional henchperson Anna Tromedlov office temps for supervillains. It’s a living of sorts. At least she’s not working for someone like Jeff Bezos.
It’s a job of the sort that passes for normal in our times: meager pay and kvetching with coworkers re inept bosses. It’s normal until Electric Eel, Anna’s latest employer, drags her along to the scene of his latest zany crime. Which places Anna in the same room as superhero Supercollider.
Supercollider is the paramount superhero. Just read his press releases. Assisted by reality warper Quantum Entanglement, and their sidekick, the speedster Accelerator, Supercollider uses his prodigious physical prowess to dole out justice. In Supercollider’s case, justice is defined as disproportionate violence and indifference to collateral damage.
Anna is lucky: she’s not a Meat, one of the overconfident, short-lived body-guards supervillains employ to buy them enough time to run away. She survives her encounter with Supercollider, casually slapped to one side as the hero focuses on maiming and killing Electric Eel’s unfortunate Meats. That slap is enough to fracture a leg and ensure Anna will be using a cane for the rest of her life.
There are, of course, no consequences for Supercollider’s actions. Not for Supercollider, at any rate. Anna on the other hand is subjected to a lengthy convalescence enlivened by assurances from authorities that any perception she might have that Supercollider acted improperly is incorrect. She is simply “interrogating the savage violence from the wrong perspective.”
Anna does have a knack for math. When she looks at the statistics of superhero-ing, she makes an interesting discovery. Supercollider’s brief appearance at Electric Eel’s crime cost the people in the room a total of 152 person-years. Supercollider is a very busy hero. His combination of vast power and complete indifference to public safety means he has the same beneficial effect on public well-being as a typhoon or small nuclear explosion.
Grand villain Leviathan despises Supercollider. He perceives a kindred spirit in Anna. Once she leaves the hospital, he headhunts Anna for his team for a very special assignment:
To social engineer Leviathan’s white-cape foes into oblivion.
Hench ’s moral isn’t that the black capes are really good people. Many of them are not: Electric Eel, for example, was perfectly happy to trade a few hireling’s lives so he could scramble for the exit. While he enjoys a boost in his villain cred for having survived meeting Supercollider, he feels no particular obligation to see if any of his minions managed to survive (or escape with only life-altering injuries).
What the black capes don’t have going for them is a vast PR and legal system set up to excuse any unnecessary injuries or deaths that the white capes’ methods might deliver. Where these consequences cannot be wrongfully credited to villains, they are blamed on the victims, many of whom are simply bystanders who had the misfortune to stand on the wrong patch of pavement. The main difference between the white capes and the black capes in this setting is that there are institutions in place to attempt to curtail the more egregious black cape outrages1, whereas white capes may, as long as their personal lives stand up to the media’s critical glare, do pretty much whatever they like.
Obviously, there can’t be any real-world analogs to Walschots’ homicidal heroes. It’s not like it’s OK for law enforcement to fire rounds into civilians to see if their sidearms are working ha ha ha and I am certain that if someone somehow ended up falling from a balcony during a wellness check carried out with all potential eyewitnesses corralled out of the apartment, there would be immediate consequences.
Walschots skillfully draws the reader into her slacker protagonist’s perspective. Anna isn’t the nicest person, but her employers are worse. And the system against which she contends is so awful! The book is artfully done; I look forward to the author’s next work. Please ensure there is a next book by purchasing this one.
Hench made the 2021 Canada Reads Longlist!
1: The situation seems to be the unintended consequence of the systems put in place once governments decided superhumans weren’t going anywhere and needed to be managed. At least the testing and legal regulations are a bit better than Marvel Comic’s USA, which from time to time tries to make mutants de facto illegal. Or Marvel’s version of Canada, about which we do not speak .