My rating: ★★★
As an avid reader, I know which books I am more likely to love or loathe, but then there are books — books like Something Strange & Deadly — that own territory I haven’t quite invaded. Either it’s new altogether or I’ve only skirted the outside and grazed a small amount. Why did I read this? Curiosity played a key role, certainly, because SS&D’s plot strays far from my typical taste, but I also seek to pile more onto my genre plate: the more, the merrier. No reason presents itself that warns I should restrict my hobby to certain genres and types of stories. If the book tastes of spoiled milk, then so be it; I’ll live (after verbal vomiting of rancid complaints). But how else can I find new fancies and obsessions?
After her father’s death, life for 16 year old Eleanor Fitt and her family plunges head-first into a time of struggle. Eleanor’s mother proves nothing less than obsessed with regaining their status and wealth, yet money continues to drain — and quickly. Unless they wish to become destitute, Eleanor must marry a wealthy suitor should her brother, Elijah, not return home from his studies. In hopes Elijah sent a telegram, Eleanor finds herself at the train depot when the Dead alarm shrieks and walking corpses make a deathly invasion.
“It’s the Dead!” screamed a scruffy boy beside me. His shrill voice was barely audible in the panicked crowds. “Get out—come on!”
But I couldn’t. Workers and passengers alike pushed and heaved to be the first out of the distant doors.
My breathing turned shallow. I backed up against the wall. The crowd was moving fast, tugging at my skirts and threatening to pull me away like a treacherous riptide.
I glanced around. The abandoned office told me I’d get no telegram today.
Indeed, no telegram awaits Eleanor. Rather, and to her horror, one of the Dead delivers a cryptic note informing further delay in Elijah’s homecoming. Frightened, she fears her brother is hostage to a necromancer and entrusts her worries to Spirit-Hunters: an oddball group hired by city council to combat the arising dead. Alongside Joseph, Daniel, and the wonderfully strong-spirited Jie, Eleanor helps the team put an end to the Necromancer and save Elijah.
For better and worse, Eleanor Fitt’s perilous story turned out and ended to meet very little of my hopes and assumptions. I dove into Dennard’s writing like a gross savage, hungry and ready for a wealthy dose of action and adventure. This, of course, meant only one thing: zombie slaying! After 193 pages, my disappointment felt sharp and ready to launch a brutal attack of its own. I read one-hundred and ninety-three pages, and Miss Fitt only proved herself capable of evading an evil spirit and jabbing zombies where it hurts: the bloody, rotten knees. Where are head decapitations? Zombie brain-bashing? Why do the Dead idle and not take over the city? Come on, Necromancer, let your fury reign!
Okay, I am too excited for the return of AMC’s The Walking Dead, and Something Strange & Deadly is thrills away from that kind of grisly psychological horror. At least El’s parasol gets put to good use. I will say that upon completing Susan Dennard’s novel, I’m forced to split my feelings into Before and After expectations — not all of which reek of letdowns.
Compared to what I thought I would encounter (think adrenaline-pumped excitement; not gore), Dennard severely restricts the amount of blood, guts, and peril. Instead, she attempts to let loose a mystery that takes center stage. As the story unfolded, I learned it merely involves blood and peril, but no guts. (Not in the literal sense, mind you.) I never considered this an issue, because no matter what I hoped to read, Susan Dennard can write. The first chapter gave me an ill impression, yet once over this small hump, I sailed through with quick ease. My problem, then, is not the absence of zombie action, but plot predictability and thinly layered world-building.
SS&D thrusts readers into an alternate Victorian era, a reality where zombie armies prowl, whispers of a necromancer sweep the air, and the spiritual world is casually spoken of with intrigue and acceptance. From this I craved history and context. I wanted a background for this new world to fall back on and create understanding, yet Dennard doesn’t provide one. Why, I wonder, do civilians treat animated corpses with normalcy? Has it always been this way, and for how long? Annoyed by a prominent lack of answers, I felt willing to give up after the first few chapters. However frustrated I felt — resembling a light displeasure — I read on. The quick pace, I realize, works in Dennard’s favor.
This book takes on a day-to-day approach of Eleanor’s life, which elevated my disappointment. Rather than gunning through, action-packed, I find too much back-and forth between the Spirit-Hunters and Eleanor’s mother. Through the entire story, El conceals her run-ins with the Dead and her new friends from the beastly Mrs. Fitt — as if these secrets are too precious and dangerous for anyone to know. I acknowledge that El is right, as it’s the sensible thing to do when your mother has a one-track mind that circles on money and marriage. But how frustrating! I desperately wanted Eleanor to pack up and leave — who cares about her mother? (Because I certainly don’t.)
Events therefore unfurl at a sluggish rate, but Dennard’s light-weight style drives readers from page one all the way to the end in a single, swift move. What I enjoy about this is how sentences refuse to clunk and drown me under verbosity. The combination of an uneventful plot — not to mention an unsurprising mystery — and light wording creates an odd reading experience. Dennard’s style is undemanding and allows me to jump from page to page with simple enjoyment. Obviously, this would be a very different review if structure weighed heavily, and I’m glad it doesn’t.
Although I never truly liked Eleanor until the end, regardless of likeable qualities, I did feel an undeniable amount of care sprout for several characters. If anything, this is why I look forward to A Darkness Strange and Lovely – also noting that Eleanor travels to Paris. (Of course, I hope this means the dreadful mother is left behind, because I’ve heard enough of that woman’s societal gripes.) Above all, however, I genuinely like SS&D despite its flaws. There is still much room for growth and potential, and I anticipate further character development in the following books.