Fiendish

Fiendish was written by Brenna Yovanoff and first published in 2014. It is a work of magical realism with horror elements, set in a small American town with a history of surreal and sinister occurrences. The novel stands alone, so you don’t have to read any of the author’s other work to fully appreciate it.

It started when seven-year-old Clementine discovered a weird tomato in the garden, but she remembers little after that. She was hidden in the cellar with her eyes sewn shut and left to sleep, existing in a dreamlike state as roots began to grow around her. It was ten years until she was found by Eric Fisher and freed from her prison, and Clementine found herself in a world that hardly remembered her.

In the town of New South Bend, you are either normal or crooked. The crooked live on the outskirts and are the families with old blood, in tune with the humors of dirt, creek, fire, air and fools light, and forever connected to the mysterious energies that bubble up from the Hollow. The crooked live in constant fear of these energies growing out of control. This happened once ten years before, triggering the Reckoning and resulting in the normal folks forming a lynch mob to put them back in their place.

Following Clementine’s rescue, strange things begin to happen again. The hollow grows restless, monstrous catfish appear in the creek and fiends – lesser gods of old – are seen wandering the woods. Clementine and her new friends know that they are the only ones who can bring the old magic under control but they need to do so quickly. People are starting to notice and it won’t be long before the frightened townsfolk turn on them once again…

Fiendish is an incredibly difficult novel to review, especially as I don’t think that it will appeal to everyone. It reminded me a lot of Tree Magic in that it focuses on the supernatural its most real. Fiendish does not spoon-feed its reader but instead leaves them to find meaning for themselves. Magic is a part of everyday life for the characters in this story and the reader slowly comes to understand what this means as they are thrown into the mysterious town of New South Bend.

The setting, for me, was the most compelling aspect of Fiendish. Yovanoff’s writing is beautiful and evocative, perfectly setting the eerie tone for the story. New South Bend is a conservative, southern town that does its best to hide its supernatural roots. The normal townsfolk do their best to ignore the weird happenings, painting the “crooked” people who live out in the sticks as backwards hicks but, deep down, they still accept their abilities. While no one will openly acknowledge them, they are still happy to buy tricks and fortune readings on the sly.

The lives of the crooked people, on the other hand, are entirely different. They live in rundown homes and do their best to keep their craft low, no longer celebrating their gifts openly for fear of pushing it too far and bringing down the fearful violence of the normal folks once again. There is a sense that they were once proud of their gifts but now many are either ashamed or frightened to be associated with the wild magic of the Hollow.

While Fiendish is not outright frightening, it has its way of getting under the reader’s skin. For me, this is horror at its most effective. It doesn’t rely or gore or shock value, it instead builds a sense of unease and the feeling that something bad could happen. It was certainly more than enough to keep me reading, as I was really curious to find out what the event that caused the Reckoning actually was.

However, the novel is incredibly slow. Despite its sinister atmosphere, it takes a long time to really build to anything. The spark that ignites the climax does not occur until quite late in the tale, and for it to be really effective you have to pay attention. The book never explains its magic system, or the connection between those with old blood and the fiends. They are things that you gradually pick up as the story progresses and are all significant in the greater scheme of things. In a way, I kind of liked that. As magic is so every day in this world, it explains why Fisher doesn’t even blink when he finds a girl with her eyes sewn shut.

Yet, as much as I enjoyed the story, I do have a lot of issues with the characters. Clementine is really problematic as she just seems too mundane, yet she should be far from this. She fell asleep aged seven and woke up ten years later in the body of a teenager. You would think that this would have an effect on her, yet it just makes her speak in a slightly childish way. She shows no surprise towards her changed body, little emotion towards the loss of her mother and seems oddly worldly despite the fact that she should have the mind of a little girl.

Clementine’s obsession with Fisher was, at best, creepy. I mean, Fisher is aware of who she is and yet doesn’t seem to pause before kissing a teenager who he knows is really a child. Yet this isn’t my only issue with their relationship. The attraction between them is instant and dominates the plot. When monsters start appearing in the woods, Clementine is still just preoccupied with wanting to spend time with Fisher. Yet Fisher treats her horribly. He’s usually sweet enough with her when they’re alone but really mean when he knows others are watching. I understand that he’s trying to seem normal in front of the muggles but, personally, I wouldn’t want to be with someone who wasn’t even prepared to admit to being my friend.

However, the supporting cast was a lot better than Fisher. Like everything else in the plot, their personalities are muted and their characterisation is subtle. I liked the warped sense of community in the story as it showed the reluctance of people to reach out to those in obvious need due to the perception of “meddling”. As viewed through Clementine’s eyes, its clear how this mindset actually causes a lot of damage. The abused Davenport and depressed Myloria were particularly memorable characters due to their silent suffering, but I also grew very attached to Shiny. Her smouldering resentment nicely underlined the rising danger from the Hollow.

So, in all, Fiendish is a very strange and slow-paced novel but it did reel me in. While I have some major issues with the protagonists, the story got under my skin and I’m unlikely to forget it for a long while. If you’re a fan of magical realism and Southern Gothic settings, this is definitely a story that you should read.

Fiendish can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Books on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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