Hench, Natalie Zina Walschots; Alex McKenna, narrator (HarperAudio 978-0-062-97860-8, $29.99, digital download, 14.25 hr., unabridged) September 2020.
In a world where superheroes and supervillains are part of everyday society, Anna scrapes by as a data-entry temp for low-level evildoers. In the course of one of these gigs, her smarmy boss, the Electric Eel, asks her to attend a press conference, which turns out to be a live-streamed demonstration of a mind-control device on the mayor’s kidnapped son. Then the brutally powerful and beloved superhero Supercollider bursts into the room and, during the ensuing melee, casually nudges Anna aside. His unthinking action shatters her leg. (Without looking, I (correctly) divined that the author was Canadian, because how broke Anna will have to pay for what in the US would be a considerable set of medical bills never comes up.)
Devastated and angry, Anna utilizes all of her skills in data analysis to demonstrate that the collateral damage that superheroes in general, and Supercollider in particular, incur in the process of apprehending evildoers far outweighs the benefits of said apprehensions. When she shares her results on social media, she catches the attention of the most notorious supervillain, Leviathan, who hires her to exploit his extensive databases to figure out the most effective ways to disrupt the lives of superheroes. As she succeeds in this venture, she both rises in Leviathan’s esteem and attracts the unwelcome attention of the so-called “forces of good.”
Alex McKenna expertly captures all the dimensions of Anna’s character: desperate, cynical, clever, ambitious, and furious, but also a person who passionately values friendship, love, and loyalty, and expresses a healthy and casual lust for people of multiple genders (too bad Anna never gets any). However, I am still on the fence on the voice she chose for Leviathan, who is strongly inspired by Marvel supervillain Doctor Doom (whom the author has elsewhere cited as her favorite villain). I would expect a Doctor Doom expy to have a booming, authoritative verging on pompous delivery. Instead, Leviathan has a spidery, quavering sort of voice. When I learned a bit more about Leviathan at the end of the book, I thought I knew why McKenna made that vocal choice, but I’m still not sure that I agree with it.
Walschots has left a few items unresolved (including Anna’s own potential for superpowers), and I’m hoping that she’ll be encouraged to continue Anna’s adventures. There have been other works in this vein – I am particularly reminded of Carrie Vaughn’s two Golden Age novels, as well as the erotic fan fiction Minion by an author calling herself Gevaisa (concerning a Mary Sue who rises from Doctor Doom’s henchperson to his fiancée) – but this is the most carefully thought-through exploration of what living in a comic-book world would really be like that I have previously encountered. An excellent debut.
This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.
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