Susan Dennard’s Something Strange and Deadly is a book that somehow manage to combine almost all of my favorite things: zombies, Victoriana, steampunk, spirits, and a plucky heroine and a smart boy. What made this book work for me was that it had a unique take on all of those things. Please, don’t let the dead-eyed heroine on the cover fool you. There is nothing dead about this book…except the bodies being set loose on the poopulation of Philadelphia. Zing! Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. Anyway, pay attention to the spooky, steampunk background as that is where this story lives.
The year is 1876, and there’s something strange and deadly loose in Philadelphia…Eleanor Fitt has a lot to worry about. Her brother has gone missing, her family has fallen on hard times, and her mother is determined to marry her off to any rich young man who walks by. But this is nothing compared to what she’s just read in the newspaper— The Dead are rising in Philadelphia.
And then, in a frightening attack, a zombie delivers a letter to Eleanor…from her brother. Whoever is controlling the Dead army has taken her brother as well. If Eleanor is going to find him, she’ll have to venture into the lab of the notorious Spirit-Hunters, who protect the city from supernatural forces. But as Eleanor spends more time with the Spirit-Hunters, including their maddeningly stubborn yet handsome inventor, Daniel, the situation becomes dire. And now, not only is her reputation on the line, but her very life may hang in the balance.
This book was a really interesting take on zombies. Because, yes, they are technically zombies. But they are also not zombies because it isn’t a virus that has people rising from the dead but a necromancer. I thought that was fascinatingly spooky. It also helped when it came to fighting said zombies, because it wasn’t just an axe to the head to stop them. It was spiritual energy etc. That made the action sequences in this book more exciting. Yes, at some point our heroine is still instructed to take a bat to a corpse’s knees if need be, but there was a bigger goal in the fighting which I liked. This also meant that the world building needn’t be so complicated as a traditional zombie novel. We didn’t need fifty pages exploring what happened and how the zombies got to be zombies; we jumped right into the action which made the book a lot more fun to read.
The plotting of this novel in general was well done. The mystery, though kind of obvious, was nicely paced. Even though I wished the ball was hidden better a few times, I felt like we got the right clues at the right times. In fact, maybe how well placed those things was what made made the ultimate payoff more obvious. I also thought we got a good amount of action and I had the right number of Aha! moments without feeling like I didn’t have time to take them in.
What really made this book for me was Eleanor. She’s a spunky heroine who seems, quite frankly, tired of being so. She has to hide her thoughts and opinions (really, the fact that she has thoughts and opinions) from her mother. She has to handle their household finances and keep the family afloat in reduced circumstances. You can see how that wears on her. You can also see how glad she is to be able to actually do something for once – how happy it makes her to say, yes, here is this problem and this is what I can and will do to fix it. I thought that she was funny and determined, even if she wasn’t always as practical as she could have been. But her foibles helped her charater. Eleanor is a 16 year old young lady in the 19th century. She was, before her father’s death, sheltered from the world. It was nice to see te consequences of society’s sexism and nice to see Eleanor frustrated by it while still not being totally comfortable throwing off the bindings placed on her.
I also enjoyed the background characters. I liked the Spirit Hunters, and thought we were given enough to keep them from being plot devices while keeping enough back to leave room for later books and to also prevent this book from being a big info dump. The other society girls were also good caricatures. There was just enough to wonder what might be simmering underneath, but the book didn’t waste time on that because fundamentally they were so unimportant to both the plot and the Eleanor that Eleanor wanted to be. I appreciated that.
My one complaint is the love triangle this book seemed to tend toward. I feel like Susan Dennard wrote this book clearly intending Daniel to be Eleanor’s love interest. That makes sense. They have definite chemistry, he’s mentioned in the blurb, he has a complicating backstory, and he’s just the right amount of bad boy. The problem was Clarence. He, too, had a complicated backstory. He had chemistry with Eleanor. And he had an element of the bad boy mystque as well. I feel like Susan Dennard started writing him and didn’t realize how much she’d like him. Because I did. In fact, I hadn’t read the blurb in ages when I staretd reading, and I was super invested in he and Eleanor for a while. I met Daniel and thought, damnit noooo! To compensate, things with him start to go…awry, shall we say…and his ultimate ending blindsided me a bit. It fit with the story, but it was the one thing in this book that wasn’t foreshadowed as well as it ought to have been.
This, I think, sucked some of the passion out of the novel. As I said above, it was a fun, well paced read. It hit most notes I wanted it to hit and it hit them on pitch. I think, though, that while I liked this novel a lot, I didn’t love it because I missed that spark. I maybe wish that I’d had more time to see the complications in Susan’s life to sit with her. But, the brilliant thing is that this is the first book of the series, so I think the next installment will have that piece I was missing here and I can’t wait to read it.
My favorite thing about this book was the ending. It was a rough to read sort of conclusion to this chapter. Eleanor is broke, body and soul, and the complciations society has forced on her have caught up with her in a way that is both expected and unexpected. Susan Dennard didn’t gloss over the constraints placed on a girl like Eleanor by having her shrugging her shoulders and ignoring them. She has her living with them. Dealing with them. Struggling against them like most girls of the time probably did. It was a very real ending and satisfying in its own twisted sort of way.
Something Strange and Deadly was a well constructed, entertaining read. It was an excellent debut, and I can’t wait to watch Susan Dennard’s talent grow.