The Monster of Elendhaven is the upcoming debut novella from Jennifer Giesbrecht, and, boy, it’s a doozie. It is mostly the story of Johann, who washes up on the poisonous black shores of Elendhaven, a foul, little city in the Nord. He is taken in, literally and figuratively, by a fragile little accountant, Herr Leikenbloom, the last of a historic family destroyed by plague, who is both more and less than he seems. When an ambassador from the south comes to Elendhaven with a female companion and a business entourage looking to set up mining and railways, Herr Leikenbloom sees an opportunity he cannot ignore. With Johann’s help he can achieve his life’s ambition. Can anyone stop him? It’s an interesting setup for a novella, but The Monster of Elendhaven is so much more than seems. Yes, it’s a dark fantasy thriller with plagues and monsters and evil people and a beautifully rendered nasty setting, but in Giesbrecht’s deft hands, it’s a compelling, psychologically gripping tale of lust and revenge, told in parallel, twisting narratives that ingeniously leave the reader sympathizing with the most horrible people imaginable.
The Monster of Elendhaven features three main characters. The ‘monster’, Johann, is a cruel, murderous… monster who cannot die, and whom people seem to forget as soon as they meet. He robs and kills for pleasure and education. He plots to kill the frail and richly attired accountant, Herr Leikenbloom, but falls under the little man’s spell. Yes, he finds out that Leikenbloom has some powers of his own, one of which is a preternatural power of persuasion that even Johann cannot resist. Leikenbloom entrances Johann and engages him to help plot revenge on all the people who forsook Leikenbloom’s family, fifteen years before, when it became clear they had contracted the plague. The plan moves along swimmingly until a third main character, Kanya, a mage hunter, makes her way to Elendhaven. Each of these characters is created with stunning psychological complexity (Kanya to a slightly lesser degree), physical uniqueness, and irresistible charm. You will cheer for each of them, even when they are pitted against each other.
The main thread of The Monster of Elendhaven is told in Johann’s third-person point of view, and he is one creepy dude. He is addicted to the worst things in life – power, lust, killing, greed. But he is almost tamed by Herr Leikenbloom who seems to be the one person who doesn’t fear him… or anything really. This thread is interwoven with the story of Leikenbloom’s family, his anger at sadness at their downfall, and his deep sense of longing for his lost, plague-dead sister Flora. When she died, he threw her body into the Black Moon, the crescent-shaped body of poisonous black water that washes Elendhaven’s shores, because according to myth she can be washed ashore alive again by the goddess Hallendrette. But instead of getting Flora back, Leikenbloom gets Johann.
The centerpiece of the story is Liekenbloom’s annual party in which all the dignitaries, Nord and south, descend on Elendhaven for a traditional feast of Norden cuisine at a restaurant featuring some local… uh… delicacies. And what a feast it is. But aside from roasted seal eyeballs with caramelized onions and the wine that tastes like hangover vomit, the real delight here is Leikenbloom’s toast, which entrances, literally, all his guests… but one. It’s all downhill from there, as the story doesn’t exactly race to its inevitable conclusion, but more like it slithers there through the muck and blood and black boils and oil slick cobblestones.
As simple as a story with three main characters might be, though, The Monster of Elendhaven is not an easy read. Most of the narrative is restricted tightly around Johann, who doesn’t know much except how to kill and who is further compromised by his mysterious compulsion to serve Leikenbloom. Add to that the strange mystery of the boy who washes out of the Black Moon sea and the body stuck on a rock there dripping pus from its wound, and you have some slightly perplexing backstory to an at times opaque narrative. However, aside from its compelling plot and damnably loveable characters, the real beauty of The Monster of Elendhaven is Giesbrecht’s use of mood and imagery. Her writing is lush and provocative, wanton and daring, and poignantly detailed. She describes Leikenbloom after his toast: “He held his pose—a prince triumphant painted in classical oils, rich and aqueous and just the slightest bit smudged around the edges…” And from the complementary narrative, when the locals trapped the plagued Leikenblooms in their manor, and Frau Leikenbloom locked the servants in their cellar without food and drink: “When the pounding under the floorboards stopped, their mother said, ‘Good riddance,’ and adjusted the fringe of her shawl.” At times Giesbrecht’s language and imagery reminded me of Susanna Clarke’s fantastic Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (the book – I don’t watch TV), but a hundred times darker, which means it is pretty near brilliant and enticingly sinister.
The Monster of Elendhaven is a story rich enough for a full-length novel yet beautiful enough for a poem – a strange, grim, and mesmerizing tale that will leave you wanting to read it again immediately to find out what you missed, which is exactly what I did, and it was even better the second time. It is not a story about grim soldiers and hopeless military campaigns, but it definitely has the grimdark mentality. No one is good or bad—each character has their own agenda and goals, for better or worse. I recommend The Monster of Elendhaven to anyone who likes dark fantasy and horror, as well as anyone who is interested in reading a brilliant character portrayal of a sympathetic yet horrifying anti-hero. Though it has a few perplexing moments, and perhaps that part of its charm, I absolutely loved it, and I look forward to seeing what Giesbrecht does next.
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The Monster of Elendhaven is scheduled for publication by Tor.com on 24 September 2019.