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The Monster of Elendhaven coverA murky slime permeates The Monster of Elendhaven, the unrelentingly bleak debut novella from Jennifer Giesbrecht. It is a story of love, revenge, and identity—and one that revels in its own perversity.

The titular monster is Johann, a boy who for many years didn't have a name, and was only given one when a random sailor took an interest—and then promptly stole from him as if charging him for the privilege. Johann is, though, special: he can't die and is almost impossible to remember, existing in people's minds for just about as long as he needs to. He uses this combination of odd traits to steal, kill, and generally do whatever the hell he wants.

That is until he meets Florian Leickenbloom.

Florian is described as Johann's “perfect opposite”—“a blazing beacon of straw-yellow hair and glass pale eyes,” compared with Johann’s “thin, pallid skin stretched taut over a skeleton that threatened to slice through his flesh at every knobby juncture.” To Johann, Florian seems to be the perfect mark, someone from whom he can take what he wants, and then treat disposably. This is until he realises Florian isn't quite what he seems: doors open without him touching them and he enjoys coffee and a biscuit for free without the cafe staff noticing. Small miracles, maybe, but it is clear to Johann that Florian is a sorcerer … and he wants to be part of his world.

So Florian takes Johann in—on the understanding that he will teach Johann what he is if Johann, in turn, protects him and acts as a servant in public. It soon becomes apparent that there is much more to their relationship than this—there is a twisted love between them and possibly much more. And Florian has ulterior motives: the sorcerer’s family has lived in Elendhaven for generations, but he is its last surviving member—the rest wiped out by the plague. He blames the town and "the landed gentry, the emissaries from Mittengelt, the southerners who stole our futures" for their demise, and wishes to exact revenge. Johann happens to be the perfect tool for such a job: a forgettable killing machine. I mean, what couldn't someone like that be used for? With a few deft swipes of a blade, you could change the world. And that is what Florian intends to do. But there are mage hunters coming, and they could be anyone.

The Monster of Elendhaven slithers along at a steady pace and packs more story into its 159 pages than you'd expect, making you at once sympathise with and despise its characters. Nobody comes out of the story atop the moral high ground. There are murderers everywhere, and they all have their justifications. But, behind it all, we have two deeply sad characters who just want to be loved. There is tragedy in Florian's past that fuels his need for revenge, yet it is made clear that he was twisted before that and the death of his family merely pushed it to the fore. Giesbrecht never makes excuses for her characters, she presents them as they are: Bleak. Nasty. Human. Even when they aren't quite.

Other characters in The Monster of Elendhaven, seen through the lens of our two protagonists, float around dreamlike, almost as if they mean nothing to the bigger scheme of things—and, it turns out, they do indeed mean very little. This is a story that relies on past events more than current, and as such all “current” events swim beneath a murky film, like it is being seen underwater. And maybe they are.

Adding to this dingy atmosphere, parts of the story rely on rather petty politics. But they are ultimately just a backdrop for a deep, melancholic vein of horror that occasionally opens up and soaks the pages in gore:

It was not a clean cut. The hatchet stuck in the tibia, and Flora was not strong enough to tear it free. Blood burst up from the saphenous vein in tall ribbons that throbbed in time with their mother's heartbeat. Fast like a caged butterfly, then slower, and slower. The first spurt caught Flora in the eye, and she fell back on her bottom.

Their mother screamed at a terrible, ragged frequency. It was an animal noise, the kind a human can only make when they see the other side of the abyss. (p. 98)

As this slice of its prose might show, The Monster of Elendhaven is a solid debut. It is also one that stays with you for many reasons—an intriguing concept, the central relationship between the monster and the gentleman. But it's a truly horrifying series of flashbacks that will play on your mind for months to come. Everything about this book is wrong; and that's what makes it so right.



Mark Granger is trying to be a writer. His work has been used on BBC Radio 4 Extra and his short stories have been shortlisted in several competitions. His work can be found at mark-granger.tumblr.com. Although he barely updates it nowadays. One day he’ll get a proper website and stop referring to himself in the third person.
Current Issue
1 Dec 2020

A toda la gente lectora: esperamos que disfruten mucho este especial de México de Strange Horizons. To all readers: we hope you enjoy this special issue from Mexico by Strange Horizons.
Onka miyek tlajle. Se lamajtsin itsintlan se xalxokokojtle kitlajkwilia etl.
The painful stigmata did not let me drive for long. / El doloroso estigma no me permitió conducir.
By: Ateri Miyawatl
Translated by: Ateri Miyawatl
Hay mucha tierra. Una anciana sentada bajo un árbol de guayaba limpia frijol negro.
By: Ateri Miyawatl
Translated by: Adam Coon
There is a lot of earth. An elderly woman gathers beans below a guava tree.
—Soy un tlacuache y tengo la culpa de tu extinción, Armando.
“I am a tlacuache, and your extinction is my fault, Armando.”
En el fondo del mar no hay poetas, sólo criaturas fotovoltaicas y paisajes sombríos.
By: Vraiux Dorós
Translated by: Toshiya Kamei
No poets are found at the bottom of the sea—only photovoltaic creatures and ghostly landscapes.
Manx was an amorphous alien made of pink slime, lard, and buttercream.
By: Luz Rosales
Translated by: Andrea Chapela
Manx era un alienígena amorfo rosa, hecho de babaza, manteca y crema para batir.
La materia oscura abarca ochenta por ciento del universo y, como el agar en un medio de cultivo, es lo que permite que estructuras como cúmulos o galaxias permanezcan unidas.
Dark matter makes up eighty percent of the universe. Like agar culture medium, this is what holds things like galaxy clusters—and galaxies themselves—together.
She checks the knob and the door is unlocked—she pokes her head through. Smoke from burning sage wraps around her.
Toma el picaporte y, al girarlo, descubre que la casa está abierta. Cuando se asoma, la golpea un olor a salvia quemada.
La evoco ahora: la tarde fría, el jardín insólito, las enredaderas, los pináculos, los charcos en curiosas figuras chinescas.
I see it now: the cold afternoon, the curious garden, the climbing vines, the pinnacles, the oddly-shaped puddles like Chinese letters.
I thought it was one of those reserved for tourists and ignorant throats. / pensé que era uno de esos reservados para turistas y catadores ignorantes.
drinking the symphony of the galactic parrot / bebe la sinfonia del pájaro galáctico / sk’upinbe sk’ejoj mutal yut vinajel
Some Mexican visual artists that I've really been loving are Miguel Covarrubias, Emilio Amero, and particularly Ernesto García Cabral.
Issue 23 Nov 2020
By: Michael Bazzett
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Michael Bazzett
Issue 16 Nov 2020
By: Cat Aquino
Podcast read by: Kat Kourbeti
By: Michael Chang
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 9 Nov 2020
By: Miyuki Jane Pinckard
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
Issue 2 Nov 2020
By: Allison Mulvihill
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Ali Trotta
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 19 Oct 2020
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Aber O. Grand
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 12 Oct 2020
By: Elisabeth R. Moore
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Stephanie Jean
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 5 Oct 2020
By: J.L. Akagi
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Lesley Wheeler
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Lesley Wheeler
Issue 28 Sep 2020
By: Maggie Damken
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 21 Sep 2020
By: Aqdas Aftab
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: David Clink
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 14 Sep 2020
By: Fargo Tbakhi
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Jenny Blackford
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
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