Book Review: Fiendish by Brenna Yovanoff

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age recommendation: 13 and up (scary stuff, some language)

The South has swamps; and mosquitoes; and yards full of decaying cars, rotting pieces of other houses. The South has church groups and superstitions and streets that are no place for respectable people. There is a unique fear that Southern parents instill in their children. At least, these are some things I’ve inferred from the gothic, dramatic, claustrophobic YA novels set down yonder. Dark stories about teenagers fighting against violent inner turmoil and sweltering old-time-y moralities of small-town pride. I tend to like the creepy atmospheres and am intrigued by the cultural idiosyncrasies that I don’t understand.

Much in the way that Natalie C Parker’s debut, Beware The Wild, evoked the tense relationship between close-knit communities and encroaching, untamable swampland, Fiendish pits townsfolk against natural forces too big and vicious to comprehend. In Yovanoff’s typical style – which I think of as Shirley Jackson drunk on teenaged angst – her main characters have to grapple with more than mere monsters rising from riverbeds or specters walking in tangled shadows. Brenna Yovanoff concentrates on the dangerous natures within her teen characters as carefully as she imagines disturbing corners of our own world for them to inhabit.

Recall, if you will the emotionally derelict town (almost monochromatic to my memory) in which her twisted changeling story, The Replacement, was set. There’s the surface level of small town politics, of trying to hold it all together in front of an unsympathetic crowd. But then there’s this underground world of darkness and horror that seeps up into her plots like an acrid, poisonous, echanting mist. In The Replacement, this place of horror was literally hiding just below Mackie’s town, full of cruel faery-things who looked like children and demanded the impossible.

Fiendish has its fair share of subterranean nightmare places. Clementine was locked in a cellar closet when she was just a little girl, and has nearly become part of the house’s decaying foundation after all her years there, drifting in some half-dreaming stasis. Reading about the roots and creatures that grew around her, the dust that collected on her forgotten form, made me want to leap and jump; shake my limbs out; maybe even do the hokey-pokey to get rid of the creeping feeling that shuddered through my nerves in sympathy. Clementine’s life changes when she comes back above ground again, now as a teenaged girl whose memories don’t go past early childhood. Thrust back into the blinding sunlight amongst a town full of people who can’t remember who she is, our sweet and determined protagonist has only her cousin and a few old friends to support her.

Clementine, Shiny, and Rae are all part of a local subset: folks who have “craft” – strange old magic – running through their veins. It’s not a glamorous sort of power, and their talents don’t necessarily make life any easier. Shiny’s flare for manipulating fire only gets her into worse scrapes when the local boys act like creeps. Rae’s affinity for associative charms and abstract magic only lets her skate by as an accepted member of society so long as she continues to hide her more elemental nature. Obviously, Clementine shouldn’t run around announcing that someone dug her out of the ground below her ruined house; the good old boys of New South Bend burned the homes on Weeping Road for a reason. They call it “the reckoning,” and all Clementine knows is that something horrible happened right before she was put in the ground. The families that live down there, with their generations of weird lore, are thought to be descendents from fiends. Fiends that haunt the nearby hollow, a sinister patch of wilderness where even the cockiest boys don’t venture.

There might be a measure of evil in what kept Clementine alive for all those years, so it should come as no surprise when Fisher, the boy who found and rescued her, isn’t wild about being seen in public with the strange girl who lives with a fiendish family and has missed out on so much of life. Clementine is innocent but she’s not helpless, and her attempts to catch up with her peers make the strange biases of “normal” people stand out all the more cruelly. Fisher was kind and brave when he dug her out of the cellar, not freaking out like his friends at the trickbag hung around her neck. He’s level-headed and caring, at least when he’s with Clementine. Check out this rather chilling moment, which nonetheless illustrates Fisher’s unflappably steady nature:

“‘Why don’t they like me?’ I whispered, getting my arms up, feeling around for his shoulder. ‘What’s wrong with me? I never did anything to anyone.’

Fisher was quiet for a second and when he answered, he sounded strange.

‘It’s not your fault,’ he said. ‘They’re just nervous about how your eyes are sewed shut.'” (p.15 in the hardcover)

But one of the major themes in Fiendish is the difficulty of being loyal and fair when the pressures of a judgmental society are closing in. Fisher and Clementine don’t exactly band together, two teens in love against the world. His friends are jerks in trucks – the sons of those men who burned down Clementine’s house in the first place – and his grandmother is, quite frankly, terrifying. Though Clementine feels attached to him because he saved her, their occasional sweet moments alone are scattered between harsh encounters in town where he behaves like a very different, much more normal, sneering guy with old family in New South Bend. The romance in Fiendish is more a slow discovery of secret depths and histories, while a shared compassion keeps Fisher and Clementine determined to do what’s right in the end.

What’s right is never obvious in Yovanoff’s writing, though, and in this case it might not even be possible. The big magical showdown – towards which the frightening natural oddities and mounting social tensions build – gets a little out of hand by the end of the novel, but it sure is scary and weird. The monsters and spirits that haunt Wixby Hollow are even worse than the rumors that circulate town (heck, do I love it when Southern superstitions turn out to be right) and something’s been stirring them up to a restless nightmare. Superstitions abound in Hoax County, sometimes right under the smiling and ever-so-normal veneer of clean cut town traditions. Take the symbolic paintings of crazy fiends that go up with all the other patriotic decorations at the annual town fair, or even Fisher’s grandmother, who is meant to be the most uptight and upright citizen around. The little old lady knows more than most, and I loved reading about the insufferably awkward dinners shared by Clementine, Fisher, and this sharp matriarch. She might be mean and snappy (and a damn good cook), but Clementine needs to know what’s behind the dangerous events they’ve witnessed.

“Just that there’s five of you creatures up there in town now. Knocking around with craft in your blood and your bones. Five kinds of wrong, and that’s one wrong thing for every point on the reckoning star.” (p 151 in the hardcover.)

Local legends combine with universal concepts of five magical elements to set the stage for a dramatic clash of monstrous nature gone crazy versus normal people hopped up on fear. With Clementine, Fisher, Shiny, and Rae caught in the middle of two blindly ruinous forces, there’s no easy way to force this growing power back where it belongs. Personally, I preferred the first three quarters of Fiendish; following Clementine as she seeks the motives behind her awful imprisonment and sussing out the unnatural powers that thrive in the periphery of New South Bend. The prophecies and stand-offs were impressive and fraught, but not quite so evocative as an odd word heard on a street corner, or an eerie silence in the Hollow.

My own fondness for subtle Southern Gothic touches aside, Fiendish was an exciting novel that felt like a breath of summer while I read it in the freezing early spring. Not a pleasant, balmy summer, though. I felt the sticky, buzzing, fear-tinged air of frayed nerves and suspicious neighbors. Fiendish has a satisfying enough ending (yay standalone YA novels!) and is good fun for teen readers who like their towns creepy and their characters disturbed.

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Book Review: Beware The Wild by Natalie C. Parker (coming out soon!)

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 -18

I read an ARC of Beware The Wild and some details may change before publication!

I seriously dig swamp magic.  I mucked around writing half a novel about swamp faeries one Spring, and it was good fun.  The bayous down South hold me in dreadful fascination, even though I’ve never really explored that part of the country and would probably quit after an hour because of the insects.  Swamps make a great setting for mysterious or threatening otherworldly activity, with weird creatures and secrets hidden down below the slime.  Hence my excitement for this new YA novel set in Louisiana, where ghostly girls come out of the bayou and local legends mix with memories which may or may not be trustworthy.  Beware The Wild is Natalie C. Parker’s first book, and I’m excited to see it in bookstores because there can never be too many creepy swamp stories.  This is a good one.

Sterling is distraught that her older brother, Phineas, will be leaving their tiny Louisiana town for college soon.  She’s always looked to him for protection, but now he’s just going to disappear.  That is, she’s sad about him leaving until he really disappears into the spooky swamp that haunts the borders of town – the swamp that’s home to all sorts of unhappy legends, where no one dares tread and which no one will admit has something sinister at its heart.  Once Phin crosses the border, Sterling becomes terrified that her brother won’t ever return in one piece.  And things only get weirder when a girl comes out of the swamp and takes his place, quite literally replacing Phineas in everyone else’s memories and even in physical evidence.  No one believes that Sterling had a brother; not her parents, not her friends, no one except for Heath. Because Heath lost his best friend to the swamp, too, and has been carrying Nathan’s memory on his own ever sense.  Even while false memories of a sisterhood with this mysterious Lenora May threaten to take over Sterling’s desperation to save her brother, she and Heath hang on to what they know is true and try to face the twisted magic which makes the swamp so dangerous.

Wow, so, the plot of Beware The Wild really hits the ground running.  Phin has disappeared by page three, and the swamp demands our attention from the very first sentence.  The girl who comes out of the swamp – Lenora May – establishes herself as a mysteriously compelling tangle in Sterling’s suddenly messed-up life before we even see inside of the high school.  And that’s only chapter one!  The family drama, friendship dynamics, and past romantic tensions come to light gradually, as Sterling grapples with her memories.  She thinks she’ll have to rescue Phin on her own at first, which would obviously be difficult, and the swamp’s background gets clearer as she struggles to come up with a plan. Sterling’s own history solidifies gradually, too. Her voice is well-defined, and the town’s spooky ambiance is believable, so I was able to accept each revelation as it came. The magical solutions which Sterling and Heath use to save their friends were dishearteningly simple in their execution, but the magical logic behind their attempts was sound enough to keep me reading.

The legends connected to the swamp took on different cadences depending upon who told them.  Mrs. Clary at the general store is a bit mystical, so her superstitions had me convinced that something awful lives beyond the boundaries.  Candy – Sterling’s best friend – is a hardcore skeptic who just happens to love telling the local scary stories.  A good mix of very American characters from all perspectives – on matters magical as well as sociable – made for a realistic, modern variety of of attitudes towards whatever danger lies just beyond rational belief.

As Sterling and Heath soon come to understand, the line between memory and belief can get fuzzy when no one else can remember the truth.

For the most part, the characters were developed nicely.  None of them will become favorites of 2014 for me, but they were fun and passionate; likable products of such a cool setting.  I thought that the villainous figure could have been developed much further, though with so much going on and quite a few twists I guess there wasn’t much space for even more exposition.

The writing was fairly strong, especially for a debut. First-person present-tense narratives usually bug me, but the pacing and narrative worked well together, here. I loved how certain details were allowed to slip through the cracks for a little while, until the reader could suddenly realize that something (or someone) was missing at the same time that Sterling notices.  The suspense took on the logic of dreams at those moments, in a consistent way that created a uniquely alarming effect.  Rather than being a jumpy or gory horror novel, Beware The Wild sustains a vaguely sinister tension up through its conclusion, with a few light breaks for awkward dates and emotionally fraught snack attacks.

On the subject of snacks: anyone struggling with an eating disorder might want to give Beware The Wild a miss for now, since Sterling has many a Bad Food Thought. Her decisions and motives are clearly influenced by starvation in several instances.  Other characters definitely act as the voice of reason against Sterling’s worrying behavior, but, as in Brandy Colbert’s Pointe (which I enjoyed but also deals with an ED) the main character’s inner narrative is very prevalent.  Therefore, whenever Sterling throws out a meal or lies about what she’s eaten, her rationalizations become part of the story.  All that sound advice from Candy, Phin, Heath, and other healthy characters comes after a strong emotional aversion to feeding herself properly. For most readers, this will just be an interesting point of character development.  And, rest assured, Sterling does change her attitude towards food as the book goes on.  Unfortunately, for those of us who have also looked for reasons not to eat – especially those of us who thought not eating could make us stronger, somehow – the element of starvation here could easily be a trigger.  So proceed with caution, please!

I recommend Beware The Wild to fans of American ghost stories and superstition junkies.  People who like intriguingly claustrophobic settings for their paranormal drama.  Teenagers with complicated feelings about their families, and anyone who daydreams about how they’ll be remembered when they’re gone.  (I, for one, have spent many an hour wondering how best to achieve immortality through other peoples’ stories.  Even if it’s just, “Don’t do that or you’ll end up like Sarah.”  A cautionary legend, if you will.  The impact of forgetting in this book hit my dreamy side hard.)

Beware The Wild has an atmosphere and themes in common with Beautiful Creatures and (Don’t You) Forget About Me, even though I liked Beware The Wild much better than either of those.   The rich setting and bizarre twists were comparable, but Parker managed to make her characters and magic more accessible, even when we have to get to know them on the fly.  It wasn’t quite so stunning as Franny Billingsley’s Chime, but honestly I can’t imagine anything replacing Chime in my affections. This book has found a place on the high end of my bog-magic list, nonetheless.

The magic in this particular swamp is unique in its function, but hauntingly familiar in the way that it seeps into the sort of fears we try to ignore: that of forgetting, but also of loving too hard, and giving up hope.  A good swamp story is fertile ground for those worries, playing them back to us on a seemingly natural stage, where something unnatural lurks under every root and rock.  Natalie C. Parker’s threatening but lovely swamp has drudged up a ghost story, and a couple of love stories, which will be a welcome addition to the Southern Gothic YA genre.