Leech by Hiron Ennes
This review contains spoilers!
Trigger warnings: body horror, suicide, child sexual assault
Recently, Barnes & Nobles had a massive sale, so I bought two books at random. The first of them was Leech by Hiron Ennes, a gothic science fiction novel set in a post-apocalyptic future. Leech is roughly 300 pages long, and though it is a wonderful read, it is one best suited for a patient reader. I won't be covering the plot in its entirety—only parts that I have something to say about. This book is amazing, and if you love science fiction and horror, I absolutely recommend you read it yourself to get the full experience. Do heed the trigger warnings, though. Though the sensitive topics are handled respectfully, they can still be shocking and upsetting when read without warning. I will be discussing these potentially triggering topics in my review.
Leech, as I said, takes place in a post-apocalyptic future during a time when most technology has long since been lost. The narrator is The Institute, a strange being who inhabits human hosts and turns them into doctors, creating a massive network of consciences that communicate telepathically with each other. These hosts are merely vessels, so their sense of self and free will are lost once The Institute inhabits them. Though the hosts communicate with each other as separate, often conflicting perspectives, they are collectively referred to as “I” as if they are all one being—The Institute. Essentially, each host is like a different limb of The Institute's body.
The novel focuses on one specific vessel: a girl who has just arrived at the far-northern town of Verdira to replace the chateau's former doctor who recently died in an apparent suicide. This doctor was a host as well—but, to The Institute's confusion, he has no memory of the days leading to the vessel's death, and he has no reason to believe he would make one of his bodies commit suicide. An autopsy reveals a small, worm-like organism behind the doctor's eyes, which is swiftly posited as a “competitor” against The Institute, threatening to destroy the life that The Institute has spent half a millennium building. The central focus of the novel, now, is The Institute's fight to locate and contain this leech before it can spread to anyone else.
I was immediately enthralled by the writing style and pacing—both are reminiscent of 19th century novels, which I love, but it's not a style for everyone. If you don't enjoy slower books that make you wait for the payoff, this book could be a challenge to sit through. Personally, the slow pace made the ending much more impactful, but there were a couple points where I found myself wishing something would just happen already.
Most characters speak a dialect called “Franco,” which I believe is English combined with a derivative of French. Personally, I found this dialect easy to understand, but I took French classes for five years, so I'm not a good benchmark if you don't know any French. For the most part, I think that the dialect is easy enough to understand through context clues, but a number of people found the dialect difficult to understand, and the process of learning the dialect may take some out of the story. If you do know French, think about how words sound in this dialect rather than how they're spelled. For instance, “wae” probably comes from “ouais,” despite the completely different spellings.
The first portion of this book is a pleasant read, but it wasn't anything remarkable. Ennes is clearly a skilled writer, and I was enjoying the writing itself more than the plot at this point. I do think that Ennes went too hard driving home the fact that the current doctor is the old doctor, every doctor in this world is part of The Institute's collective, et cetera et cetera. It reached a point where it became somewhat annoying, but this thankfully is only a problem during the very beginning of the novel.
The book finally caught my attention when the protagonist was unknowingly infected with pseudomycota—the “competitor” leech she was trying to eradicate. This parasite completely cuts the protagonist off from the rest of The Institute, and she is left mentally alone with no way to hear or communicate with the other thousands of hosts. The novel slowly splits into two perspectives: The Institute and a second, unknown perspective. This is not explicitly stated, but it can be seen in the way the narrator begins to question herself, contradict and argue with herself, and fight against actions the other perspective is making. This division becomes increasingly apparent, until these perspectives completely separate, and “The Institute” becomes a separate character—and an antagonist. The Institute's perspective can now only be seen through what other hosts directly tell the protagonist. The perspective has now changed to a completely different person, yet we are simultaneously reading about the same person we have been from the beginning. I absolutely loved how Ennes executed this, and it was so interesting to read because I've never seen a parasite-host relationship executed like this in a novel.
My favorite part of Leech, though, was the protagonist's companion and assistant, Émile. He's a mysterious yet endearing character—mute, but wonderfully expressive even in the absence of dialogue. I was attached to Émile from the beginning, but I wasn't sure why—perhaps it was the silent scorn so many people had for him, making assumptions about him that you know can't be true. Émile remains shrouded in mystery for the greater part of the novel, but things take a turn when The Institute tries to inhabit Émile in a desperate attempt to stay alive if his current host dies. Émile, believing the protagonist poisoned him, tries to flee the chateau, but he is restrained and taken away by Didier, the baron's son. The protagonist searches for Émile, and when she finds him, she finds Didier atop Émile, sexually assaulting him. Furthermore, though The Institute's attempt to inhabit Émile failed, the protagonist is briefly connected with Émile during the attempt and can see his memories as if they are her own. This is how it is revealed that Didier has been sexually assaulting Émile for years. If Didier wasn't despicable enough already, we also learn that Émile is the child of Didier's late lover, who he had also assaulted after she repeatedly denied his advances.
Generally, I absolutely hate when sexual assault is a plot point in stories, if only because the topic is usually romanticized or depicted exceedingly poorly. But, Ennes quickly proved that this story is not like that. The protagonist, upon witnessing Didier's assault, immediately tries to attack him. While she is unable to, her attempt gives Émile enough time to attack Didier himself. While the other characters condemn Émile for this, the protagonist and the novel itself do not. Furthermore, Didier is never characterized in any way besides the pathetic and manipulative man he is.
Regardless, this twist is understandably too much for some readers, and I've seen some say that it ruined the book for them. But, this twist absolutely made the book for me. It was handled wonderfully and respectfully, and it made me feel understood in a way no story has ever had before. I could go on endlessly about how consistently Ennes hit the nail on the head depicting the trauma of experiencing childhood sexual assault. The dissociation Émile experiences during the abuse. The attachment Émile feels to Didier because he is affectionate with Émile in way that no one ever has been before. Émile writing notes to Priest begging him to pray for the gods to kill Didier. It was absolutely heart-wrenching, but so unbelievably cathartic. Seeing these specific experiences represented and validated is something I've never seen in any book I've read before, and I didn't realize how much I needed that represented in a piece of media until I had it. Obviously, this opinion is swayed significantly by how much I relate to Émile. I can absolutely see this being too much for other people, but I strongly disagree with anyone who says this twist was unnecessary.
The best part of Émile's character arc is that, not only are his feelings towards Didier described as justified, but he is also able to get revenge on Didier and escape the hell he's been trapped in for his entire life. Émile had been planning to kill Didier for a long time, because it's the only way he could ever be free from Didier. Even if he escaped, Didier would go to the corners of the earth to find and reclaim Émile. Émile, in the midst of chaos brought upon by pseudomycota and The Institute, kills Didier, sets the chateau ablaze, and escapes with the protagonist. I've too often read stories where abuse victims simply forgive their abuser or are villainized for not forgiving their abuser. It's so refreshing to see an abuse victim who is able to escape their abuser and live their own life.
What was interesting to me is the fact that, while Émile is a literal example of the effects of trauma, the protagonist herself feels like a metaphor for the same thing, as well. She, who had lost herself entirely when The Institute took control of her, is finally able to separate herself from The Institute and find herself again. There was a specific line about this subject that was so impactful to me that I had to stop reading to write it down:
“Suddenly, I am certain [Émile] sees me for what I am: a motherless child, too old, too knowledgeable, and still so terrified, captive in a body that has grown without her.”
When the protagonist, the child who spent years dormant in her own mind, is given her agency back, she finally remembers her name: Simone. Simone and Émile have such different stories, but they intertwine beautifully to create a heart-wrenching and realistic story about childhood trauma.
The ending of the story, though, was disappointingly brief, even if I understand why it was. The pace picks up drastically following the climax, as Simone and Émile are in a race against time to escape Verdira in the depths of the harsh and unforgiving winter. The pace helps depict how desperate and frantic they were as they fled, and I have no qualms with that even if I prefer the slow pacing of the rest of Leech. However, the novel ends right after Simone and Émile make it to the nearest city and board the train, and I just wish we got to see more of Émile's freedom from Verdira and Didier.
This review is nearing 2000 words, and I've hardly scratched the surface as to why I love Leech as much as I do. I've completely skipped over so many plot points, so much world building, and more. I haven't even touched on the wonderful way this novel approaches gender, or the ways in which this novel feels like it could be a depiction of dissociative identity disorder specifically. The latter may very well be me projecting, but if I talked about this topic I'd have pulled in so many more plot points in the process. There is so much more to experience in the full book, and I cannot recommend Leech enough. Please go read it, please go experience the full story, it's so worth it.