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Week Twenty-Four: Hench

So, this was not a book that I would have ever chosen for myself to read. I would have picked it up, read the blurb, said “wow…that’s clever…” and put it right back. No mysteries to solve, no couple to reunite, no werewolves, no vampires, no witches, no one on the run? No, thank you.

However, one of the reasons that I started a book club was so that I would be forced gently encouraged to read outside my comfort zone. And this was our (voted on by the group) inaugural selection.

Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn’t glamorous. But is it really worse than working for an oil conglomerate or an insurance company? In this economy?

As a temp, she’s just a cog in the machine. But when she finally gets a promising assignment, everything goes very wrong, and an encounter with the so-called “hero” leaves her badly injured. And, to her horror, compared to the other bodies strewn about, she’s the lucky one.

So, of course, then she gets laid off.

With no money and no mobility, with only her anger and internet research acumen, she discovers her suffering at the hands of a hero is far from unique. When people start listening to the story that her data tells, she realizes she might not be as powerless as she thinks.
Because the key to everything is data: knowing how to collate it, how to manipulate it, and how to weaponize it. By tallying up the human cost these caped forces of nature wreak upon the world, she discovers that the line between good and evil is mostly marketing. And with social media and viral videos, she can control that appearance.

It’s not too long before she’s employed once more, this time by one of the worst villains on earth. As she becomes an increasingly valuable lieutenant, she might just save the world.

A sharp, witty, modern debut, Hench explores the individual cost of justice through a fascinating mix of Millennial office politics, heroism measured through data science, body horror, and a profound misunderstanding of quantum mechanics.

This book raises serious questions about what it means to be a hero and what it means to be a villain, and whether the difference really is which one has the best PR. In this story, the ‘worst villain on earth’ really doesn’t seem all that bad, while the heroes wreak havoc with impunity. Almost every review I read said a couple things, the most common being some variant of “be prepared to root for the villains”. I would counter that with “be prepared to change your mind about who the villains are,” because, in the end, I certainly felt like I was rooting for the heroes, even though the heroes might not have been who I thought they would be.

I loved the mundanity of the super-villain world. I loved that there was a definite corporate-style structure. You had villains, and Kicks (sidekicks) and Meat (bodyguards). And Temps, who needed to do such amazingly villainous tasks as accounting (someone has to pay the Meat), data entry and admin duties (again, someone needs to make dinner reservations). It was awesome, and familiar, and made the entire endeavor seem…human.

And the basic premise of the book seems like some sound accounting. How much damage—property damage, and human collateral damage—it’s done by heroes in the name of saving…the girl, the mayor, the city, the world? I refer you to exhibit A:

And, exhibit B:

https://www.businessinsider.com/superhero-movies-that-destroyed-cities-2016-8

So there is real cost to having a set of heroes at the ready. It’s not surprising that someone like our heroine, who found herself on the receiving end of the destruction, would start to compile data and ask questions. And maybe join a super-villain to try and take all the heroes down. As one does.

As I mentioned above, I read a bunch of reviews of this one before I started it. I wanted to make an informed book club choice. And one of the things that stood out, that I heard over and over, was that “half-way through, it becomes an entirely different book.” This concerned me…but I needn’t have worried. I’m not sure what book those reviewers were reading, but I found the narrative to be tight, consistent and believable throughout.

I did find the book a little tough to get into. It was well-written, but I really didn’t CARE about the story or the characters till I was probably 40% of the way in. In the beginning, Anna is sort of a cipher, a stand-in for all of the damage that the heroes have caused. But after she hooks up with Leviathan, and especially after she begins to form a real connection with him, she became a person, and a person with a story to tell. From that point, it was a freight train, and it was all I could do to hydrate and hold on.

Finally, as a warning, I can not overstate the body horror in the last part of the book. I needed to look away quite a bit, and there may have been some deep breathing exercises. To say that it wasn’t comfortable for me to read is putting it mildly. So, if you are squeamish, be aware that you might want some zofran on board before you get to the end.

With that said, though, this one is still a highly-recommend. Not perfect, but really damn good.

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