Review: The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht

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The city of Elendhaven sulks on the edge of the ocean. Wracked by plague, abandoned by the South, stripped of industry and left to die. But not everything dies so easily. A thing without a name stalks the city, a thing shaped like a man, with a dark heart and long pale fingers yearning to wrap around throats. A monster who cannot die. His frail master sends him out on errands, twisting him with magic, crafting a plan too cruel to name, while the monster’s heart grows fonder and colder and more cunning.

These monsters of Elendhaven will have their revenge on everyone who wronged the city, even if they have to burn the world to do it. 

              The Monster of Elendhaven is a story about monsters. And all monsters must have names because “things with names survived.”

              Before Johann was a thing with a name, he’d crawled out of Elendhaven’s flowing womb—its harbor—and slipped among the town’s people like a snake, quick and quiet as a shadow after dark. Johann decided that in order to survive, he had to have a name. So he tried on the sleeves and slacks of a few—”Johann the Demon, Devil Johann, Johann in Black, Oil-Dark Johann”—but Monster Johann fit best. “The first half was a kiss, the second a hiss.” No one in Elendhaven knew Johann’s name, and if they knew it, it quickly slipped away like mercury from probing fingers the moment their minds closed around it. It’s why Johann was able to stalk the streets of Elendhaven for so long—untouchable, unknowable, inevitable in his destruction.

Until one day when Johann sees a man nursing a drink alone in a cheap bar, clothed in a coat limned with gold and looking “rather as if he wanted to be robbed”. With “glass-pale eyes” and “a blazing beacon of straw-yellow hair”, the man looked like something that sprung from the dreamy-soft imagination of a painter. He looked delicate—not breakable, there’s a difference—like a fine blade. And there was something untouchable about him too, something filled with teeth and power. Something beautiful enough to kill. And Johann was like a moth before a candle.

              Johann did what any sensible monster would do: he stalked the mysterious man for three weeks, long enough to learn his name was Herr Florian Leickenbloom. Long enough to learn the secrets Florian hoards like a miser his chains of gold coins. Long enough to know what Johann had suspected all along: that Florian was another thing with a name. Another monster—just like him. And if he were lucky—maybe worse.

“You’re awful,” Florian hissed out between chuckles. “You’re a vile creature.”
“Herr Leickenbloom, please.” Johann smiled easily. “Don’t underestimate me. I’m more than vile; I’m an honest-to-god monster.”

              It’s a wretched thing, this book, sharp as shattered glass and filled with teeth. And something else too, something that slides into your neck like a talon, demanding your attention. Holding you in place. Something utterly, utterly captivating.

              The author renders her world and characters with a tenderness that is both touching and terrifying. Her sentences are exquisite, and the way she sketches hideous acts of depravity and violence with poetic, visceral power gives the darkness lying at the heart of the story a wilder texture and an even deeper view. I immediately sank into the rain-soaked, shadow-steeped, fog-shrouded atmosphere that saturates the novella, and was entranced. For the space of just a little more than a hundred pages, my mind was wound so tightly around the story it felt like there wasn’t enough of me to be in the real world. 

              But it’s Florian and Johann’s dynamics that made this book such a rewarding, unforgettable experience.

              What Florian and Johann are to each other requires a word harder than “love,” a word with claws and fangs. A longing. An obsession. A craving. Don’t get me wrong, they are fucked-up. Like, straight-up fucked-up. But I think the model of these pairings in fiction is so fascinating because—despite how monstrous the characters are, despite how questionable their dynamics can get, and despite the moral unease that will lap at your conscience like dark waves—sometimes they strike the deepest chord within.

              I mean… Don’t we all make the same unspoken plea in our minds for someone who would look into the crevices of our soul—into our brokenness, our woundedness, our wretchedness—and see something infinitely precious and worthwhile? Don’t we all wrestle with the dreadful longing to be known, to be seen, and then, to be accepted, and to be loved? Our hearts are a knife honed to a hair’s edge, and still we long to surrender them; our secrets are cloaked in a thousand veils, and still we long to reveal them.

              Deep down, we yearn for someone to see us and know that we can cut.

Who would ever have thought that a thing, once named and held in open palm, would want to curl up and stay there forever?

              The Monster of Elendhaven is a story about monsters, but it’s also a story about two monsters seeking to know each other, even if the knowing might cut at their skin like pinpricks of ice.

              Johann and Florian stood in front of each other like rooms with doors flung open. They stared at each other, a clear and cold reflection of their truest selves: the monstrous and the monstrous, and something unique knit between them. Their moments together felt like something peeled out of a nightmare, then softened into a dream—a delightful confection of tenderness and wretchedness that held me completely in thrall.

              Florian had waited so long for someone to see him and know that he can cut. He was the sole member of his family who was passed over by a vicious plague, and the loss still feels like a wound that would never close. Florian had a grief so deep and so sharp he needed his hands in something vengeful to lessen it: he wanted to visit death upon those he blamed for his family’s gruesome deaths. Death, at the very least, but Florian had also fed his mind on darker and much more terrible things that could precede death.

              Because we only glimpse Florian through Johann’s gaze, we get the impression that there is something just slightly unfathomable about him, something inscrutable about the turning of his thoughts, and—like Johann—it made me want to tug at him until something came loose from its moorings. But the most fascinating thing about Florian’s character is that he isn’t presented in the novel as someone who went unhinged by the death of his family, but rather as someone whose monstrosity only became more inscribed in him as a consequence of grief. There has always been a festering wretchedness at the core of Florian, slowly leaking poison, and Johann could see it, clear as a summer’s morning.

              Johann looked at Florian, all astonishment and simmer, and immediately knew that he could cut. It was the odd sensation of peering into a mirror—because Johann was made of sharp edges too. He drunk in Florian’s attention like cracked ground drinks rain, and relished Florian’s anger, like a cat rubbing too close to the fire. He reveled in Florian’s tainted affection, and it was a vile, delighted thrill in finally finding something as fiercely dangerous as him. Johann’s “longer fall”.

              Now, it’s important to note that by no means am I saying Johann and Florian should be held as a paragon for a healthy relationship. I cannot overstate how deeply, wrenchingly fucked-up they are. But at the end of the day, a monster’s bruised, unthwarted longings are not so much different than ours: we yearn for someone to whom we can reveal the awful ruins of our hearts, and we hope they might see it, and understand.

And when our work is done, I will carry him to the bottom of the sea, where we both belong. Deep beneath the silt our bones will turn to salt.

              My only real quibble with the book is that it comes to a relatively abrupt end, a missed-stair kind of lurch, and I stepped out of the book itching a little over the sense of unfinished narrative space. Eleanor’s storyline also feels a bit thin—she’s the monster huntress going after Florian, and she was so intriguing to me, but her character gasps for more oxygen on the page, and the novel seems to tie up the strands of her life a little too quickly, a little too late. It’s not enough, however, to put a permanent dent in the experience of reading this novella, and I’m already looking forward to sinking into its simultaneously spine-chilling and soothing embrace once again.

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One thought on “Review: The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht

  1. “we yearn for someone to whom we can reveal the awful ruins of our hearts, and we hope they might see it, and understand” – wow this whole review just has me seeing things in a new light. this book sounds a little otherworldly and from the way you’ve described it, i suddenly want to move it up my tbr. gorgeous review.

    Liked by 1 person

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