A Romance Built on the Horrifying Beauty of Violence and Agony
Names have power.
We know this from countless stories involving faeries, demons, or that shadow that keeps stalking you at night. When you come across a Thing and you know what it's called, not only are your chances of surviving significantly higher, but you gain control over it.
But when a Thing who is neither faerie or demon but an entirely different entity has emerged from the depths of the black ocean, gives itself a Name, and takes for itself power from the city that summoned it — would simply knowing what they’re called be enough?
The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht is a novella that takes you to rain-soaked streets and pushes you deeper into the heavy fog to be a witness to the city. To see how Johann, the monster born of darkness has found more than just kinship with Florian, a delicate but dangerous man who has dark secrets of his own.
As you walk further into the city, notice the tall silhouette walking beside you. Feel your mind become heavy and malleable with each step. And if you find your feet continue walking even as your instincts tell you not to, just let it happen. You wouldn’t believe what awaits at the shores of Elendhaven.
If there's one thing the book is incredibly good at, it's creating the ambiance. The language and imagery is intentional, and made it so that the reader can step into this gothic city and become part of its populace.
For much of the book, in fact, one can't help but think of the city itself as a character — a ripe backstory of its own, an alluring personality, and an influence that significantly affects the present storyline.
Elendhaven is a place whose mountains were said to be created from a volcanic eruption and were sundered by searing black magic. Its air is thick with the stink of industry and oil. And its crescent-shaped harbour clings to the foetid dark waters of the Norden sea.
Yet, it is also believed to be home to Hallandrette, the city's guardian. No death goes without justice here because of the god-queen. One may throw what they love most in the ocean and cast Hallandrette's roe — a round, opalescent stone found along the beach — against the stone wall and a hallankind will be born meant to love the caster, and drag whoever wronged them into the sea to suffer a painful death until they become seafoam and matter.
This is Elendhaven — a place that bodes death to those unable to survive its harsh environments and perhaps even the magic that seeps into its cobbled streets. As well as a city where a compassionate goddess sends her children from the bottom of the sea to wretched souls looking for companionship.
From Elendhaven's womb, an aberration was born.
Before Johann became a Thing with a Name, he tried to wear a few to see which fit, like a man trying out coats — Johann the Demon, Devil Johann, Johann in Black, Oil-Dark Johann — until he settled on Monster Johann. The first half was a kiss, the second a hiss.
This creature's first steps into life in Elendhaven already stained his hands with warm blood, from him and others. His self-education involved being pushed and kicked down, and then immediately learning that he relished in the sound of snapping bone and cartilage.
More than that, he learnt to create a well-cultivated and practised persona that lures people in and carefully waits for the right moment to make a move.
In this, Johann is much like the city, mirroring its curious and dark nature, and reflecting it back to the people powerless to his appeal. And like a moving black hole, he very quickly fades from their memory, giving him more opportunities to set traps and scatter bait. Given time, even he knew to spin a story deserving of a creature created and nurtured by the city.
But he isn't the only Thing with a Name and Power in Elendhaven.
Johann meets a beautiful, wispy sorcerer named Florian. Elendhaven's 'truest son' whose blood may well have flowed through the foundations of the city, and who is the city. He is delicate in the way a dagger is especially when its fine blade hits the light. It's mesmerising and hypnotic until it blinds and cuts you.
Together, they work on a sinister plan that will leave the world — or at least the people who dared cross Florian — reeling until it begs for swift release.
Johann and Florian's relationship is a dark and twisted one you probably didn't know you wanted to read, if you haven't sought it out yet. This is not just two monsters who have found each other and the toxicity of their bond. Watching both of them be drawn to each other's power and name and the myths that surround them is fascinating to see, like two predators gauging the other before they pounce.
What they have is more than love, it's a craving that is fully sated as soon as they found each other. It's a game of who can dominate the other, but also unexpectedly revelling in the surrender.
It's reading between the lines and amplifying what remains unsaid about what drives Florian to seek such brutal vengeance and making sense of what Johann truly is.
In essence, their bond is that Johann is specifically made to match Florian's vile and bleak nature. Florian, the only one in Elendhaven who can provide Johan the thrill of a "longer fall".
But their romance is that they looked at each other, saw the darkest and most wretched crevices of their soul, and found that they are willing to share their Name and Power.
As you read the book, there are moments that make you wish it were longer. If only to spend more time in Elendhaven to explore the very human horrors of the city, which were subtly hinted at like capitalism, climate change, and exploitation.
To be with Johann and Florian a little longer to witness the very inhuman terror they're working to sic unto the world.
To find hints and passages as to who these Mage Hunters are and what they're capable of.
In short, when you turn the last page, it leaves you wanting more.
The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht is a story that dares you to walk towards the dark waters of the harbour, to test your moral limits, and show you the poetry in depravity. Its lyrical language paints a picture of two monsters who have built a relationship on their dreadful and broken hearts, and found themselves enthusiastically and intimately exploring their natures, even if it means they might bleed.