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The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht3.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe Monster of Elendhaven, the debut Tor.com release from Nova Scotia writer Jennifer Giesbrecht, is a dark fantasy deathdream that had the great misfortune of getting buried under the avalanche of hype for Gideon the Ninth. It’s a pity, because compared to Gideon, a book which quite frankly wears its fascination with darkness as little more than a style affectation — like a teenager from the ’90s who got heavily into Marilyn Manson and painted their nails black because it was the edgiest thing they could think of — The Monster of Elendhaven wallows in darkness with complete sincerity. There are many books out there more nihilistic than this one aspires to be, but Monster is a book that stays true to its author’s vision without fully alienating its readers into the bargain.

This is a revenge story in which we’re meant to root for the bad guys. And though it’s undeniably fantasy, not horror, it’s more likely to appeal to horror fans than fantasy fans who look to the genre for comfort reading. It all takes place in the city of Elendhaven, a cold, festering industrial hellhole so dank that even the water in the harbor is pitch black. Johann is a true denizen of the city, not even human, but a being born of dark sorceries from the waters of the harbor itself. A coldly analytical serial killer with an inability to die himself, Johann survives on the streets from childhood to young adulthood. Eventually, he encounters a local aristocrat, Florian Leickenbloom. Their fates will become entwined.

Florian, the last surviving son of Elendhaven’s most prominent (but now impoverished) founding family, is a young man with a vendetta. He despises the nouveau riche and the carpetbaggers from neighboring lands who profited while the city reeled under a devastating plague fifteen years before, a plague which claimed the life of Florian’s beloved twin sister. And now these impertinent foreigners are back, seeking to reopen silver mines and railroads and line their filthy pockets! Johann is at first taken aback by Florian, especially the calm lack of fear he feels in Johann’s presence. But Johann has figured out Florian’s great secret: the young man is a sorcerer in a city where magic is a capital crime, and he means to avenge himself against his enemies by spreading a new variant of the plague he has developed.

There’s a dark, sardonic sense of humor that suits the tale, delivered in beautifully flowing prose that gives Giesbrecht’s grim visions a poetic quality. With its indeterminate, sort-of Victorian steampunk-gearpunk setting, The Monster of Elendhaven is what you might get if Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell had been written by China Miéville or Mervyn Peake. The concept of a local belief in a goddess from the deep sea granting horrible boons adds an ever-so-faint touch of the Lovecraftian as well. It’s all great nasty fun watching Florian and Johann carry out their devilish deeds, even as a growing tension and power struggle between the two of them is building. (Though it must be said that I was less convinced by what I saw as the fairly conventional and perfunctory inclusion of a rising sexual tension — it could hardly be called romance — between them, mainly because of what actually binds them, about which I can’t give details without too many spoilers.)

There’s probably enough material here for a longer novel, but I’m glad Giesbrecht held it to just about 150 pages. The story is confident in its intent and meets its goals without overstaying its welcome (something that also cannot be said for Gideon the Ninth). And though the ending does leave room for a sequel, I hope Giesbrecht resists the urge and leaves matters well alone. After all, some nightmares are better left to the imagination.