And with that, Malevolent begins.
The 'I' is Libby. She's a high school senior, but not a very active one. Stricken with 'Valley Fever', she's virtually bedridden: even on the good days, she's worried about ranging too far - her mysterious ailment could strike at any time.
Malevolent opens on one of those good days. She's feeling fairly strong, plus, the beekeepers are in town. Libby's family has an almond farm. The annual visit of the beekeepers and their pollinating bug-friends is not only important to the farm's success, but it is also a lot of fun to watch.
This year is especially fun, as there's an enigmatic stranger in the mix. This newcomer works with unnatural speed, and has a connection with his bees that seems almost magical. His strength, speed and pallor all combine to make Libby think - jokingly - that this newcomer, Mal, is a vampire. (awkward cough)
Libby's bantz with Mal also remind her that she has her own boyfriend - Robert. He's a dick. Seriously - he starts dickish (he even shmoozes money from Libby's slightly ineffectual mother) and gets worse. Much worse. Which is why, when Mal gives Robert a bit of whatfor in their first (or is it) encounter, Libby tends to give Mal the benefit of the doubt.
That said, Libby gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. A nicer, more naive, more self-sacrificing heroine will be hard to find. In Malevolent, she's quickly established as the point of a love triangle. Robert's abusive - a full-on monster, but Libby keeps giving him extra changes in a bizarrely doe-eyed way (especially since she doesn't even like him). Mal, for the ostensible 'good' one, isn't all that much better. He's voted Less Likely to Gaslight, but he's also very happy to keep Libby in the dark as long as possible, and use her for his own (dangerous) purposes. Plus, of course, the whole time-honoured Buffy/Twilight squickiness that comes from having centuries-old beings woo teenagers.
Malevolent largely consists of Libby surfing a wave of - slightly gormless - naïveté. Mal and Robert bat her back and forth like a cat toy, as they compete in some sort of epic Duel of the Undead. There's a big cosmic plan out there, as based on some supernatural pseudoscience (there's a sort of metachlorian equivalent which is the foundation for all supernaturalness, and suppressed by a hand-wavey conspiracy). Unsurprisingly, both Mal and Robert are part of it... and on different sides.
Even when Libby discovers her own Chosenness, and how she fits into this magical mix of being, she still - oh-so-nicely - takes the backseat to Mal's schemes. Her freedom is exercised largely by choosing how and where she fits into other people's plans.
It is a shame, as the opening pages establish Libby as a determined, slightly-reckless (yay!) teen with a a great deal of self-confidence. But, as it turns out, that's only when she's with her parents, who are complete non-entities. When set beside anyone with agency, Libby completely folds. It is, of the course of the book, a little frustrating...
BUT, let's do this properly. Time for our criteria...
Is it entertaining? I'm afraid no. Malevolent has a really interesting set-up, but never settles into its own skin. There's some natural escalation, building into the climactic battle, but the path it takes is often repetitive (Mal's box gets lost a lot and "my boyfriend is being a dick" loses its ability to surprise). Malevolent began in a pleasantly languorous and atmospheric way, but that soon disappears. Mal and Libby's relationship is the ostensible heart of the book, but it doesn't get the opportunity to organically. Yet, at the same time, the build-up to the end was a wild rush: things embiggened in a hurry. The reality of the book was a lot of rushing around, whilst still avoiding forward progress - pacing best described, perhaps, as cyclical.
Is it immersive? Hmm. I'll give it a generous kinda. But not really. Malevolent has clear potential on two fronts. The first is the setting, and its physical atmosphere. An isolated California valley, cold fog rolling in, a lonely family with a sickly daughter, living in a remote orchard, a mysterious wandering beekeeper... This is an evocative setting, fitting anything from classic fey romance to a 1980s horror movie. But the story never takes advantage of its isolation, as Libby's surroundings are revealed to be more mundane than they initially seem.
The other avenue of world-building is, of course, the supernatural. And, again, there's a lot of possibility here: as Malevolent wisely identifies, there's something deeply engaging about the metaphor of bees, both for their symbiotic relationship with the world and their symbolism as heralds of life. In the hands of, well, a vampire, that's got a lot of potential. But despite the increasing complexity of the world's supernatural elements, they never really land. There are vampires and liches and necromancers, and life and death metachlorians, and a vast conspiracy and wizardly orders and... and... it escalates too far and way too quickly, mixing faith and quasi-science to create a very, very thin suspension of disbelief.
The believability of the supernatural isn't helped by Libby's oddly accepting response. She very rarely questions - and never challenges - Mal's pronouncements, and is weirdly incurious about the events around her, preferring to accept everything at face value. "I read a lot of fantasy, so it's not hard to put the pieces together," she brags. But there's a big difference between reading about vampires and dealing with the reality of having one ransacking your bedroom, Libby seems to take both for granted.
It it emotionally engaging? I loved the opening line. I was hooked. Libby - frail but fearless, loves dogs, video games and the outdoors - and Mal - twitchy and weird - start out well. But, before long, Mal's speaking in some variant of Ye Olde English, there's cosmic predetermination involved and the two are running around in circles as the plot wildly embiggens. I wanted to like Libby, and that's worth something, but she lost me. Unfortunately, this means I'm giving engagement a no. As a romance, I wasn't charmed by any combination of the love triangle, as a drama, I always questioned her self-destructively naive decisions, and as an epic adventure, Libby's arbitrary Chosenness made her distant and uninteresting.
Is it different? Paranormal Christian Vampire Romance is undoubtedly a larger subgenre than this one book, and, who knows, within that category, Malevolents might be a dime a dozen. But, as far as I'm concerned (and many readers, I suspect), Malevolent is unique - yes, it is different.
I'm conscious that this review, as a whole, wanders down a pretty bad path. Malevolent didn't do what I expected (or wanted), but that doesn't make it a 'bad' book. In fact, it is an admirably greedy book, that freely encompasses aspects of conspiracy thrillers, Gothic horror, epic fantasy, Dungeons & Dragons, and, of course, paranormal romance. And I admire that approach a lot. I'm sorry Malevolent wasn't for me, but it will undoubtedly be for others.
Is it embarrassing? Nope. First, I think it is fair to say there's a pretty heavily Christian influence here, and, to be clear, that's not a problem in any way. Libby, for example, takes Bible verses at face value for their predictive influence. And the way the romance takes place is, well, culturally different - it is implied, for example, that Libby and her boyfriend are dating for six months without kissing. None of this is my culture, but the book isn't preaching it, merely presenting it. (Nor does it ever wade into the hot water of social issues.)
Malevolent edges into riskier territory with Libby's relationship with Robert. He's outright abusive - and the indications were that he has been for some time, and in many ways. I don't think Malevolent ever portrays this abuse as Libby's fault, and, if anything, it demonstrates how, no matter who you are (even the Chosen One!), anyone can be the victim of a destructive relationship. That said, I do think Malevolent misses an opportunity to do more. To make Robert's attempts to overwhelm Libby (and her family) the focal point of his evil, rather than a side effect of it, for example. I would also have liked to see Libby save herself, rather than rely on Mal to do it. However, I am, again, in the trap of wishing this book were something it weren't, rather than reviewing it as it is.
In a nutshell... I sound like a broken record, but... one last time: There's a lot of potential in Malevolent, but it never came together for me. The first three chapters present an interesting heroine, an unusual magic system and an atmospheric setting. But the book lost me as it went on. The romance felt contrived, the heroine lost her appeal, and the atmosphere was dispelled as the magic was explained. Malevolent, to me, was set up as an intimate, atmospheric, almost Gothic exploration of two people connecting. Instead, the book surprised me by taking the relationship for granted, and sacrificing the characters to the whirlwind of a plot. Malevolent has a promising start, but, for me, that promise was never fulfilled.
For fans of: Stephanie Meyer's Twilight, obviously, but also Sally Green's Half Bad and Laurie R. King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice.