Leech by Hiron Ennes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is one weird book. The closest analogue to it I've read is Seanan McGuire's Parasitology trilogy, but that is a much more straightforward near-future science fiction thriller. In this one, the worldbuilding is all over the place, and precious little of it is explained. I have the impression we're centuries, perhaps millenia, in the future, after a climate collapse and near-extinction, and humanity is just again beginning to pull itself out of the mud and rebuild a technological civilization. There is old, rusting and forgotten tech everywhere, and satellites falling from orbit are depicted in stories as "dog's noses" dropping from the sky. Or I think that's what happening, at least. Nearly everything about what worldbuilding exists is ambiguous, and the reader has to put their own interpretation on it.
What doesn't have to be interpreted is the central conflict. The first-person narrator, a nameless (at first) doctor from the Institute in the central city of Inultus, is riding a train north to investigate the death of its predecessor. Only, as we come to find out (and also why I used the pronoun "its") this physician is not a singular individual. It is a sapient parasite that has invaded and occupied the host bodies of all the remaining doctors in this post-apocalyptic society, and at least at the beginning of the book, it looks out through myriad eyes and speaks with multiple mouths. When the doctor autopsies its previous host, it pulls a wriggling black worm out of the dead host's eye socket, a competing parasite it names Pseudomycota...and the hunt begins.
Since this book has heavy gothic elements, the brooding and decaying chateau where this all takes place becomes a character of its own, and the inhabitants therein are a dysfunctional, horrifying "family" that comes apart at the seams as the story progresses. The baron who is running the place seems to be a cyborg (as do a couple of the other characters--in fact, the doctor brought with it some tubing to place in one character's artificial heart? but in this, as so many other elements, the worldbuilding is vague and frustrating), his son and heir Didier has a heavily pregnant wife who keeps miscarrying mutant babies in the attempt to produce a son, as her only surviving offspring are twin girls who seem to be attempting to become conjoined. Didier himself is revealed to be a thoroughly nasty person, as he is repeatedly raping his servant Emile because Emile looks like his lost love.
And that's just the horror inside the chateau. Outside, as the doctor goes looking for the source of Pseudomycota, the doctor and Emile descend into the depths of the "wheatrock" mine (a major plot point that is never fully explained; you can eat the stuff and also somehow use it to grow crops, and it's hinted that it might have an extraterrestial origin). They track it to the source and the full body of the creature is revealed, as it comes wriggling out of the dark with its goopy, many-segmented arms. (Cthulhu would be proud.) The doctor tries to reach out to its fellow hosts in Inultus, but at this point in the story the doctor is severed from its own parasitical overmind and is imprisoned in its host, all alone. For a while the doctor thinks help is coming from the Institute, but winter is settling in, such a winter as will bury the stone spire of the chateau in snow clear to the second-story balcony, and all the characters, including Pseudomycota, are trapped inside to fight it out.
If you like worldbuilding that makes sense, as I do, you won't find it here. But as I continued, it became clear that worldbuilding was not the author's primary concern. Once the doctor has become a singular person again, the story focuses on themes of identity, personality, and memory, and the person the doctor previously was begins to emerge, along with traces of her past. (Yes, this host is female, and at the end we learn her name: Simone.) Eventually, after discovering she has inadvertently infected everyone in the chateau and the surrounding town with the spores of Pseudomycota (including herself, but her Institute organism fought the invader to a standstill, localizing it in one eye, which is removed, and Emile is somehow immune to both parasites), Emile and Simone burn the chateau to the ground and escape. They catch one of the spring trains to ride south, back to Simone's community of origin.
There is a lot of body horror in this book--black ooze coming out of people's orifices, bodies being cut open and organs removed--so if that's something you can't handle, you'd best not start this. I considered stopping a couple of times because the worldbuilding is so vague and unsatisfactory, but the story, and especially Simone's rediscovery of herself, drew me on. (That, and the fact that Emile gets a most satisfying revenge on everybody who did him wrong.) It's not quite in the train-wreck category, but I definitely couldn't look away from it. It's an unsettling, disturbing read, and one of the more unique stories you'll come across.
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