Review: Leech by Hiron Ennes

cover of LeechLeech by Hiron Ennes
Tordotcom (September 27, 2022)
336 Pages; $27.99 hardcover; $14.99 e-book
Reviewed by Damon Smith

While packed full of interesting prose and well thought-out worldbuilding, Hiron Ennes’ Leech is easily one of the more frustrating books I’ve read this year. From beginning to end, the experience is uneven, with the “slow burn” of the quieter moments beginning to drag the quality of the overall story down. It is a book full of potential, which makes its lack of impact all the more disappointing.

The world is broken; more than broken, actually. Following some great calamity that has shattered the moon and left much of the planet a toxic wasteland, what remains of humanity struggles on in Industrial Revolution-like societies; under constant threat from the weather and wildlife of the ruined world. Enter into this dying world, The Institute; the sole surviving healthcare system that brings a new, Lovecraftian, meaning to the word “body politic.”

Right off the bat, the premise Ennes throws the reader’s way is fascinating. Icy Verdira and the lands beyond, are rich, interesting settings ripe for stories. Doubly so with how deftly the world-building is dealt out: Everything from the customs of the land to the twisted history of The Baron’s Chateau has to be pieced together with the reader’s own detective work.  Never one to over-explain or browbeat, Ennes excels in creating a truly lived-in setting; which is sure to craft fertile ground for futures stories and fan speculation. Where other authors would take the premise and setting of Leech and turn it into a creature feature, Ennes lets our minds fill in the blanks with many of the bigger picture issues and creatures, resulting in far more effective scenery than would’ve been made had it been explained outright.

The Institute is a truly clever protagonist too. Following their seemingly omniscient perspective is a disorienting experience at first as we, the reader, have to learn to “see” through just as many eyes as they do. I’ve never quite seen a viewpoint character quite like the one that headlines Leech; and the squirming, unknowable, body-horror this character encounters as they try to navigate the tense relationship between their gestalt Institute and the aging Baron creates a wonderful conflict between the human and inhuman. It’s a question almost as old as fiction to ask, “who is the real monster here?”, but Ennes asks it well. Making the reader decide what is worse for the world: the parasitic disease or the systemic power structures that keep The Institute — and men like The Baron — in charge of what’s left of the planet.

Unfortunately, after this setup, things begin to weaken for Leech. While the prose is excellent, befitting the characters’ voice and dripping in gothic detail, the execution of the story stumbles again and again. The Institute as a character is simply too detached from the human experience at first to really generate any tension or reason to care. While there are twists along the way that change the way our viewpoint interacts with the world, by the time they really roll in it may be too little, too late for most readers. This results in a reading experience not unlike sledding on a winter day: When Leech picks up pace it is exhilarating and addicting, but those moments when the plot is forced to trudge back to the top of the hill kill the momentum and I was left feeling a bit cold when everything started to come together. It takes about halfway through the book for the slow burning plot to finally boil over, but by then the alien nature of the protagonist had so effectively severed me from the human nature of the story that I was struggling to find reasons to care for anyone’s outcome. Especially since the plot still has momentum issues once you coast into the second half.

The world presented in Leech is a “ruined,” awful place. It is a hopeless setting, and not always in a way that benefits engaging storytelling. The question of “which is worse?” only has weight, in my opinion, when there are people in the middle we actually care about. By the halfway point, I felt I hadn’t gotten to know any of the surviving characters very well and I realized how hopeless the whole situation was, not just for The Institute, but for the world. There needs to be a glimmer of hope, something to make the hopelessness of the third act have meaning. Leech sadly lacks that spark. With a rich, yet clinical, narration, it severed me from the fascinating world more effectively than any parasite — earthbound or otherwise — could.

And that’s a shame. Like I’ve mentioned several times in this review, there are parts of Leech I absolutely adore. The setting is phenomenal, the characters and their growth fascinating, the prose evocative; but once you move beyond the setting, everything starts to lose its luster. Much like the titular character, the expansive view Leech provides of a ruined world is overwhelming in its detail. But sadly, a lack of singular emotional focus leads the story to be much like its protagonist, detached until it is too late. By the time things reached their conclusion, I just wanted it to be over.

That being said, I cannot wait to see what Ennes does next. Leech is a very flawed, but promising start. I think this book — while a miss for me — will be a massive hit with a certain kind of reader. But, much like The Institute and its way of getting new bodies, what we are is what we are; until suddenly we aren’t. I started the novel excited for what was coming down the pipe, and ended it disinterested in what I had read.

While peppered with moments of genius, it’s Leech’s lack of focus that ultimately dooms the operation; leading to a novel that less than the sum of its parts.

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