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Leech by Hiron Ennes

Tor, pb, £9.99

Reviewed by Sarah Deeming      

A wealthy baron’s physician has died, and the Institute, the medical organisation the physician came from, has sent a new one to support the baron and uncover why the previous physician died. The autopsy reveals the physician had become host to a parasite, but that should be impossible as the physician was already a host to a parasite, the Institute. An intelligent lifeform that takes over the consciousness of its hosts, connecting all of them, creating one brain over hundreds of bodies and sharing all their knowledge and memory. So why can’t the Institute remember why its old host died?

Investigating the origin of the parasite takes the Institute beyond the reach of its other minds and works alone for the first time. Without its greatest advantage, its many brains, how can the Institute survive a one-on-one attack against an enemy already thriving among the secrets and lives of the baron’s castle?

Leech is written in the first person, but not a human’s first person, a parasite’s first person. The Institute is a sentient parasite that inhabits the bodies of those humans who are capable of surviving the ingestion period. This unique point of view is a really engaging hook in this unusual murder mystery. As the Institute completes an autopsy on its old host, it relies on its hosts in other parts of the world to research the symptoms. These shifts in the parasite’s locational awareness are well-written, moving from the dark cold of the baron’s home to the academic halls of the Institute’s library with a few well-crafted sentences.

Leech has all the hallmarks of a gothic horror, with a young person isolated in a large rundown house surrounded by hostile people. Secrets and mysteries threaten the main character’s safety, an overbearing patriarch and his dutiful, if tragic, son, ghosts in every corner and lots of sexual tension. Intertwined with this, Ennes gives us elements of a post-apocalyptic world, trying to establish a life on the surface after an unexplained event drove people underground, where some developed additions to their bodies like tails. But, I feel it is also set in our future. One character, Baker, has mechanised body parts that need replacing every now and then. In one scene, the new physician found enough plastic to replace a tube in Baker’s internal mechanisms, which should last six months. The two discuss Baker’s smoking and how he should give it up, but he doesn’t see the point when plastic is so hard to scrounge now it won’t be replaced again. This exchange shows us that this world was destroyed at its height, and humanity is carving out an existence on the edge of survival. This combination works well, heightening the tension and the paranoia that runs throughout.

The book’s main theme is control and identity. The baron controls every aspect of his family and subject’s lives, including when they eat and where they work, but this has serious consequences, which I won’t spoil here, but suffice to say, the past overshadows the present. The Institute controls its host in much the same way, and as the story continues, we are forced to decide if the Institute is any better. It might protect its hosts, keep them healthy, educate them, and provide them shelter from the world’s dangers, but at what cost? Is the trade-off worth it?

Leech is a really clever genre-blending murder mystery about identity and freedom. It plays on our assumptions about things such as gender and has enough twists and turns that survival is not a guaranteed outcome. A worthy winner of the Fantasycon Best Newcomer Award.

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