One of the first books I read for my 2020 “Storm the Castle” Reading Challenge was the novella The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht. I read this book on Audible (a good majority of my reading is done through audiobooks these days). It is a fantasy/horror story and it was a) very dark and twisted, b) very good, and c) very gay. I loved it!
I used to write book reviews semi-regularly, but I am very out of practice so this will probably not be horribly structured or formal. And I haven’t decided how I am going to quantify my feelings into a number or star system, so that’s very up-in-the-air right now… (shrug). That said, I will try to keep this review from being TOO spoilery, while still providing enough information for you to decide if this book sounds like something you’d like to check out or not.
The city of Elendhaven lies in the far north, on the edge of a dark, mysterious ocean. It is a city filled with gruesome myths and haunted by plague and betrayal and death. In this city, the story begins with the “birth” or perhaps “creation” of the main character: a creature shaped like a man but not entirely human, a thing with no name until he baptizes himself and decides his name is now Johann. Johann, tall and dark and menacing, yet somehow nearly invisible in society, quickly learns how to make a “living” for himself by whatever criminal and violent means necessary: stealing, stalking, killing, etc. He also discovers that he, apparently, cannot die. Stabbed, beaten, jumping off very tall buildings… it doesn’t matter the method, he does not die.
In the course of his criminal endeavors, Johann begins stalking a wealthy young man he sees often in the bars around the city, named Florian. Florian is small and frail and almost femininely-pretty, but when Johann finally attacks him in a dark alley, Florian is unafraid and unimpressed, but intrigued by the possibilities Johann’s talents might afford him. Florian is, in fact, a sorcerer… possibly the very last one of a breed who have been hunted and executed to near-extinction.
Thus begins a dark, twisted partnership as Johann becomes Florian’s willing servant on a mission of depraved science experiences, murder, and revenge.
This novella is black as pitch, sleek and glimmering and beautiful and yet greasy, like an oil slick. It is amazing how much of a punch it packs in a slim 160 pages (about 4.5 hrs on my audiobook)! Johann is violent and terrifying, yet strangely guileless – obsessed with, enamored of delicate but depraved, nearly-heartless Florian. The relationship between the two is a tangle of fascination, disgust, obsession, and deeply-buried genuine affection. And Florian’s plans and motives are so secretive and mysterious that it takes the entirety of the novella to really put together all the pieces. (At one point I thought Florian might be trans, but I was wrong. Gay as shit though). The story is half-horror as Florian instructs Johann to carry out his ruinous revenge of the city and the people who had so horribly wronged him and his family; and it is half-romance as Johann tries to charm Florian with his bizarre mix of flattery, affection, and sado-masochistic penchant for violence.
Jennifer Giesbrecht’s prose is wonderfully baroque, gothic, and poetic. The language lingers, takes it time, stays on the tongue and against the teeth. It features such lines as:
“Power was sweeter than apples. It was cheaper than water, and sustained the soul twice as well. If Johann was going to be a Thing with a name, then from now on he would be a Thing with power, too.”— Jennifer Giesbrecht, The Monster of Elendhaven
And the first description of the city of Elendhaven is nicely indicative of the tone and style as well:
“Southerners called its harbour the Black Moon of Norden; a fetid crescent that hugged the dark waters of the polar sea. The whole city stank of industry. The air was thick with oil, salt, and smoke, which had long settled into the brick as a slick film, making the streets slippery on even the driest days. It was a foul place: foul scented, foul weathered, and plagued with foul, ugly architecture—squat warehouses peppered with snails and sea grass, mansions carved from heavy, black stone, their thick windows stained green and greasy from exposure to the sea. The tallest points in Elendhaven were the chimneys of the coal refineries. The widest street led south, rutted by the carts that dragged whale offal down from the oil refineries.— Jennifer Giesbrecht, The Monster of Elendhaven
Hundreds of years ago, the North Pole had been cut open by searing magic, a horrific event that left the land puckered with craters like the one Elendhaven huddled in. For five centuries, the black waters had been poisoned with an arcane toxin that caused the skin to bubble and the mind to go soggy and loose like bread in broth. Once in a while, the fishermen would pull up an aberration from the ocean floor: something frothing and wet with its insides leaking out its eyes. ‘Demons and monsters,’ visitors whispered, ‘such creatures still sleep inside the Black Moon.’”
I’ve seen a few reviews of this novella online. Some people really liked it, and others gave it a tepid response, claiming that it starts well but is missing something. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what they think is missing. Sure, the ending is ambiguous and open-ended, but I think that is all to its merit. I admit I do wonder what could have been, had this story been fleshed out into a full-length novel, but in general I love novellas – I love the big explosive power of the tiny package – and I think this novella works very well. I really enjoyed it, and I believe anyone who likes their fantasy with a horror-twist and a bit of a gut-punch will enjoy it as well.
I’m still shaking out how to do my reviews, but for now I’d say it’s a 4.5 out of 5 stars.
For more info:
You can also check out the author’s playlist and some fanart on Jennifer Giesbrecht’s website here