Friday, August 3, 2012

Review: Something Strange and Deadly, by Susan Dennard

Publication date: July 24th, 2012
Publisher: HarperTeen
Format: Hardcover, 388 pages

Goodreads description:
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.

Review (spoiler free):
I was really anxious to get my hands on this book! I love steampunk, but have read few stories set in the US so far. Also, I was curious to see how the author would combine the historical/steampunk setting with zombies. Well, I was not disappointed!

I really enjoyed how Susan Dennard managed to write a strong heroine like Eleanor and still make her believable in a 19th century setting. She is not strong in a way that makes her seem out of context or as if transplanted in 1876 Philadelphia from the present day, but neither is she a vapid high-society girl only concerned with fashion and gossip. She is smart, and she can kick some ass- err, incapacitate the Dead with well-placed blows of her sturdy parasol. All of that while wearing a suffocating corset and heavy skirts and gloves in the summer heat (for once, the gorgeous dress on the cover is actually relevant to the book). The frequent mention on dresses and dressing procedure might appear weird to some people, but do your research – those corsets kept more in line than just young ladies’ figures. If you can’t move your body or even breathe freely, how are you going to think? How break out of confinement and the role assigned to you by society?

However, that’s what Eleanor needs to do if she wants to save her brother from whoever is controlling the Dead and uncover the mystery of her father’s death and her family’s financial ruin. Preferably before her mother spends the rest of their meager funds on trying to keep up with society’s expectations so that she can marry Eleanor off to the first rich man that comes along, which appear to be Clarence Wilcox, son of a man who used to be her father’s friend. But what exactly are Clarence’s reasons to show interest in Eleanor?

Eleanor needs help, and information. What better place to go than the Spirit Hunters, hired by the city to improve security during the Centennial Exhibition? An unusual amount of walking Dead have been sighted in the cemeteries around Philadelphia, and unless the Spirit Hunters can come up with a smart solution, they might turn Hungry and overrun the city at any time.

The Spirit Hunters were different from what I thought – I had expected a large organization, with secrets and hierarchies and funds. Instead, there are only three of them. Joseph, the Creole gentleman from New Orleans who used to study under a voodoo queen. Daniel, the rude inventor who loves to tease Eleanor. Oh Daniel. You got on my nerves as much as on Eleanor’s at the beginning, but you turned out to be one of my favorite characters in the book. And Jie, the Chinese girl who wears trousers and inspires a new way of thinking about gender roles in Eleanor. Jie is nothing if not tough, pragmatic, and realistic.
However, the city mistrusts the Spirit Hunters despite hiring them, and their evasiveness about certain issues also rouses Eleanor’s suspicions.

Just whom can she trust? Her family? The Spirit Hunters? Clarence Wilcox? No one but herself? I really enjoyed seeing Eleanor grow into her true potential despite the tremendous odds she is facing at times. The pace of the book was great, picking up as things went along and always a good mixture of action scenes and smart deductions and revelations about the sinister plot behind the actions of Philadelphia’s elite. There’s was also humor thrown in, especially in the dialogues between Eleanor and Daniel.

The love interests in this book couldn’t be more different from one another. On the one hand, Clarence Wilcox is the man every girl in society pines over: handsome, rich, accomplished, about to run for the city council. On the other hand, Daniel is poor, at times rude and infuriating, but also a very talented inventor and someone who really cares about his surrogate-family of Spirit Hunters. He and Eleanor have more in common than is obvious at first sight. I loved watching their relationship evolve. Who knew what rolled up shirt sleeves could do to a girl not used to being touched without gloves (another realistic 19th century part I really enjoyed – effects of dress etiquette). Another thing I enjoyed? The romance aspect didn’t hijack the story but it did enrich it without being dominant.

The final showdown was surprisingly graphic but nothing if not realistic. I admit that I could see part of the revelation of the mystery coming, but not the whole extent of it or Eleanor’s entire involvement. No matter what, the fallout from it all was unexpected in its severity and the ending doesn’t sugarcoat anything, which I liked even though it broke my heart a little. Overall, I can’t wait to see Eleanor face the consequences of what she did and the decisions she’s made. What an amazing debut and killer start to a new series!

Personal thoughts (spoilery):
For once, I don’t have that much to add. I loved how realistic the setting was (down to all the uncomfortable parts like the stink, having to get by on little money while pretending affluence, having to bribe your maid), and I could go and on about how important those dresses were to the way women could move and behave and express themselves – or more like, couldn’t. Seeing Eleanor go from being shocked at Jie’s wearing trousers to doing it herself was awesome. She didn’t grow up to be an adventurer, but she definitely picked up courage and learned to hold her own in a fight – especially once the lack of breath in that corset didn’t leave her in danger of fainting anymore.

What I didn’t expect, but thought was great? That the price she pays is her hand. I expected it to be saved somehow, but it wasn’t. There had to be payment for her breaching of norms and laws, and this is it. Don’t get me wrong, I hurt for her and I shudder at something similar happening to myself. But I’m glad the author didn’t ‘chicken out’ and come up with an unrealistic miracle. I’m curious to see the consequences of this – no way for her mother to marry her off now, even if the damage to her reputation could be undone. I hope Daniel makes a really great artificial hand for her in the sequel ^^’’ Yes, I really did like the dynamics between them that much. Their exchanges were also very amusing, and that kiss… *sigh* let’s just say, I wish my first kiss had been like that.

A note on the zombies: I’m not usually a fan of zombies. Unlike vampires, they just gross me out. I only knew them from a few movies though and had never read a zombie-book, even though there are so many coming out right now. I had actually planned for my first zombie read to be Dearly, Departed, but I haven’t gotten round to that one yet. I read in one review that the blogger thought there was not enough mention of zombies/importance given to the issue in Something Strange and Deadly, but I can’t agree with that. The Dead come up all the time, and there are plenty of attacks. The final showdown was quite graphic but in that, erm, slightly pleasant, liking-to-be-grossed-out way. (We have a word for that feeling in Swiss German but I can’t come up with an English translation.)

I wanted to keep this short but there I am, rambling on again… one last note on the women characters. I liked Eleanor for her fierceness and her loyalty, as well as her realism. She keeps the finances of the household in check and runs errands while her mother stays at home doing… whatever. Having tea, probably. Yet while Eleanor is strong in her person, the author also made her limitations (and those of all women) clear. She and her mother have no male provider and protector, and they need money. While her mother deludes herself and pretends affluence and fawns over marrying her daughter off like so much cattle, which I found sickening, it is also a show of realism in her character. If they want to keep their high-society status, Eleanor can’t work outside the home. Her mother is probably too old to remarry, so finding a husband for her daughter, to her, is worth spending all that money if it pays out in the end. Eleanor’s age would not have been an issue at the time, nor were her wishes. I also liked that Dennard brought in characters from all classes – spoilt daughters for whom money was no issue, Eleanor caught somewhere in the middle, as well as servant girls such as her maid Mary. I thought she was greedy and petty at first, but she’s also just trying to get by on what is probably little to no wage apart from food and housing. The jealousy among women, as well as the occasional moments of companionship, again made the time and setting come alive to me rather than just having it there as a sort of theatre scenery.

To wrap it up: great and diverse characters, well-rendered scenery and world-building, compelling writing, interesting plot, as well as just the right amount of fighting and action scenes. One of my favorite books this year so far, and a piece of shelf-candy for greater merits than just a beautiful cover.

But as always, I’m interested in what you guys think. Have you read it? Do you want to?

There’s also a book trailer, as well as a beautifully done website.
Susan Dennard also has a Facebook page and a Twitter account.


  1. Thanks for the thorough review! I have this one on my shelf but haven't gotten around to it yet. I think I'll move it to the top of the list. I haven't read many zombie books either, but I've wanted to since reading Warm Bodies.

    1. Thanks for commenting :) I just checked out Warm Bodies on goodreads and I think it's awesome that it's written from the zombie's POV! I think I'll have to warm up a bit to that whole zombie business...

  2. Wow, you have a good vocabulary and are a wonderful writer! Thanks for the review. Iwill be adding this book to my wish list! I like the idea of a strong female heroine who must fight a time in history where women were looked at as the weaker sex. I like what you say about the book cover being relevant to the story! I can't stand when the cover has nothing to do with book!

    Lindy Gomez

    1. Thank you so much for the compliment on my writing *blush* It really means a lot to me that you think the review is well-written!
      I thought the setting and all its cultural implications were extraordinarily well-handled in this novel. And I agree, I also sometimes wonder at all the covers that, even though they're very pretty, have little or nothing to do with the actual story...

  3. Great review, Lovely! I loved this book! And Daniel? *sigh* I loved him to itty bitty little bits and pieces! ;)
    I loved how Susan wasn't scared to hurt her characters, that's what makes a great book!!! =D

  4. Nice Review! I really need to read this book soon! It just sounds soo good! I love books like this one!