Genres: Horror, Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Agender MC, minor F/F
PoV: 1st-person, present-tense
Published on: 27th September 2022
In an isolated chateau, as far north as north goes, the baron’s doctor has died. The doctor’s replacement has a mystery to solve: discovering how the Institute lost track of one of its many bodies.
For hundreds of years the Interprovincial Medical Institute has grown by taking root in young minds and shaping them into doctors, replacing every human practitioner of medicine. The Institute is here to help humanity, to cure and to cut, to cradle and protect the species from the apocalyptic horrors their ancestors unleashed.
In the frozen north, the Institute’s body will discover a competitor for its rung at the top of the evolutionary ladder. A parasite is spreading through the baron’s castle, already a dark pit of secrets, lies, violence, and fear. The two will make war on the battlefield of the body. Whichever wins, humanity will lose again.'
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~don’t go out after dark
~the twins are Not Okay
~seriously, eat the rich
Before we get started, can we take a moment to acknowledge how ridiculously beautiful that cover is??? Because it’s absolutely stunning and I have spent far too much time just staring at it.
Delicate is the word that comes to mind when I think of Leech; not fragile but fine, elegant, like an exquisite piece of jewelry or a spider’s web shining silver in the twilight. It’s something about Ennes’ prose, like the words are being spun out of silk as you read; it’s something about the subtle, careful, precise way the worldbuilding unfolds; it’s something about how the progression of the plot is like walking on a frozen lake as spring arrives, the sensation and knowledge that the ice is thinning under your feet with every step you take.
It would have been so easy for this story to be a hammer, for this premise to be executed as blunt and brutal. Ennes could have written Leech that way, and it would still have been horrifying! But instead of a hammer, Leech is a scalpel; instead of being beaten over the head with how scared you should be, the horror is an infection slowly spreading through your tissues…until before you know it, you’re in real trouble.
A parasite that infects humans to take them over has set itself up as the Institute – the storehouse of all medical knowledge in a far-future post-apocalyptic world. It uses its many bodies – each of which is best thought of as a limb of a single hivemind, albeit limbs with their own psychological and cerebral quirks – to minister to the medical needs of humanity. It only makes sense – without healthy human bodies to possess, our narrator would be nothing much at all. But the revelation that another, possibly competing parasite has come into play threatens, not just the carefully calibrated existence of the Institute, but the survival of humanity – because its presence may make it necessary to destroy one of the most vital resources this broken world has.
In many ways, Leech is very squarely Gothic Horror; we even have an enormous old house inhabited by a toxic family, complete with despotic patriarch and eerie twins. But I’ve never seen Gothic Horror in a post-apocalyptic setting before, and it’s one of those things where, if you’d asked me, I’d have guessed they wouldn’t mix well – and yet now that Ennes has gone and done it, I’m craving more of this combination. Writers, please take note: I want to see so much more of this! (And readers, if it already exists: let me know!)
I simply loved how the setting – and worldlbuilding – was slowly revealed, like uncovering a winter corpse in spring thaw. When I started reading, I actually didn’t know we were getting a post-apocalyptic story at all, and piecing that together – recognising bits of our present through the funhouse-mirrors that are the cast’s grasp of their past – was so much fun. But I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much – maybe at all – if Ennes’ world had fit the post-apocalyptic stereotype of burning earth and charred remains, which is pretty boring to me at this point. Leech takes place in snow and ice instead, in a North populated by unkillable monsters and people with vestigial tails, and there is something shivery about the soft, precise poetry Ennes uses to paint it for us.
Particularly because of whose mouth Ennes has put those words in: Leech is written in first-person, and our narrator is none other than the parasite/symbiote that is the Institute. Who is, perhaps surprisingly, not very alien – but then, how could it be? It’s been living in human bodies for a very long time, and since things like emotion are a lot more biological than we usually like to think about, the Institute has inevitably been experiencing most of the things humans experience for quite a while now. Which is not to say that it’s human – it very much isn’t, and I was positively gleeful at the glimpses we got of how it’s hivemind works; conversations between multiple bodies, dealing with the different wiring of individual brains, was just *chef’s kiss*. But the Institute never felt very Other to me, and there were times when I was pretty sympathetic to it and very much on its side!
But then, I am very weird when it comes to monsters. Your mileage may vary.
Honestly, there’s so much I want to say about that first-person narration, because it’s absolutely fundamental to the story in a way that only becomes clear towards the climax of the novel. Ennes has been incredibly clever with it – I am still both delighted and in awe of what they pulled off and how they pulled it off, and I regret that I can’t give you any details at all because Huge Spoilers. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that I can’t believe this is Ennes’ debut; it’s a perfectly crafted masterpiece of mindfuckery.
How’s the horror? There were definitely some moments that made me squeamish – in the first few pages of the book, the Institute removes the eye from a corpse, and that’s far from the only moment of – is it correct to call that body-horror? I think so? And I mean, this is intrinsically a body-horror story; we’re literally being narrated to by a Thing which has taken possession of a (live!) human body and person. Which has in fact taken possession of MANY human bodies and people! This is body-horror from the perspective of the horror-thing, which is audacious and brilliant and completely fucked-up – and the worst part is that the Institute is so smooth, so sympathetic, so reasonable, that the fucked-up-edness of it all doesn’t even really occur to you until near the end of the book. Ennes, like so many of the best horror writers, makes the reader complicit in the horror being perpetuated, and I simply Cannot Even.
Which all means that Leech is at least equal parts psychological horror as body-horror – if not more so.
Readers will need a reasonably strong stomach for body-horror, and there’s one thing in particular that deserves a trigger warning, although I’ll put it under a spoiler-tag because it is plot-relevant: View Spoiler »long-term sexual abuse of a minor « Hide Spoiler. But – despite occasionally needing to put the book down for a few minutes after a body-horror moment! – I loved this book. Leech is quietly, terrifyingly brilliant, tapping into the node of morbid fascination in all of us to all but seduce us to the final pages. It’s a beautiful, elegant sickness without a cure – just as it should be.
The monster comes out of the bottle this Tuesday. Don’t miss it!