In a world of wickedness and cruelty, a monster is born. Elendhaven itself was birthed from violence when long-ago magicians split the earth open and poisoned the sea. A city of industry sprang up around the devastation, only to be gradually consumed by it. When the monster is born (or, more accurately, becomes aware of its existence) Elendhaven is dying, fitfully and painfully. There is plenty of room for men who behave like monsters and small boys with a taste for blood. The monster names himself Johann. As he grows, Johann learns about power, how to take it from someone, how to prevent someone else from taking it from you. He learns how to kill and learns he enjoys the act of killing. He was a “Thing with power,” and Things with power survived.
But he isn’t the only Thing with power in Elendhaven. Florian Leickenbloom, beautiful, delicate, magical Florian, hides a true nature as bleak and black as the fetid waters lapping the shores of the toxic city. Johann is just the thing Florian needs to take his sinister plot to the next level. When a Mage Hunter from the south picks up their trail, the lovers make one last ditch effort to bring their plans to fruition. They will destroy the world or die trying.
This is more than just a fun little novella about scary monsters and nasty humans killing each other. The unspoken reasons for why Johann is the way he is and why Florian wants such a brutal form of revenge are just as important as the spoken ones. Burrowed between the bones are hints of commentary on climate change and environmental exploitation, racism, homophobia, privilege and power, and capitalism. This isn’t a novella about social justice issues, but like any good work of speculative fiction, it fully embraces and eagerly examines the larger social context of which it is a part. Jennifer Giesbrecht’s subtext is both subtle and sharp; it cuts deep and the wound lingers long after the last page.
Romance plays as big a role in The Monster of Elendhaven as revenge, but don’t expect flowers and chocolates and poetry and picnics. Florian literally, repeatedly, and with great fervor tortures Johann to death as he tries to understand the limits (or lack thereof) of Johann’s abilities. And Johann relishes every moment. With each execution he witnesses a little bit more of Florian’s darkness. Both are drawn to each other’s power. They dominate one another in turn and savor the unexpected moments of submissiveness. They both balance each other out and empower each other. It’s no wonder, then, that they end up in bed. Theirs is a love story soaked in blood, soulmates who have bonded over screams of agony and shattered skulls.
On one hand, I wish the story had been a wee bit longer. I would’ve liked to see more of Florian’s frustrations with Elendhaven’s nouveau riche before and after he and Johann launch their assault. And an expansion of the Mage Hunter subplot would be nice as well. As it stands, the resolution between Florian, Johann, and the Mage Hunter feels rushed, largely because the reveal comes so late in the game and the Mage Hunter gets little screen time. On the other hand, the story is so steeped in brutality that if it were any longer it would teeter over the edge from delightfully grotesque to unnecessarily perverse. At novel-length, the violence would be nearly unbearable, but as a novella it is much more manageable.
Giesbrecht’s vivid descriptions help ease some of the violent tension. Often poetic, occasionally lurid, the way she depicts and describes Elendhaven, its inhabitants, and the world beyond is truly wonderful. Sentences dance across the page in a display that is equal parts sumptuous and practical: “The noise was a clear, cool ringing that hushed the heated and drunken conversation in the room immediately. All eyes went to their host. Florian, wreathed luminous in orange light, raised his glass above his head, leading the table in a toast. The filigree of his coat burned the colour of an inferno.” And when Giesbrecht applies all that talent to worldbuilding and exploring its mythology, the results are thrilling.
With Halloween on the horizon, you have the perfect excuse for picking up a new horror novella. But really, it shouldn’t be relegated to one gothic-drenched season. Good horror demands attention no matter the time of year, and The Monster of Elendhaven is just that. No, it’s better than good. It’s frakking great.
Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.