Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard grabbed my attention when I first saw it. Looks pretty and Victorian and mysterious, right? But then I found out it was about zombies, and I’ll admit, I don’t read a lot of zombie books. I’m not opposed to them in theory — I like stories that incorporate magic and the supernatural and action and suspense, and zombie stories tend to have all of the above. I just often find zombie stories to lack the finesse and nuance of other paranormal creatures, and so I tend to gravitate towards fairies and vampires and demon-hunters and aliens and time-travelers.
However, something happened to make this book stand out: I saw the video of the Susan Dennard’s reaction to finally seeing her book in print, and my heart grew three sizes that day. It was just so sweet. And I thought to myself, “If the author is that cute about getting her book published, I kinda want to read it.” And then I was fortunate enough to snag an advance digital copy from the publisher, so I happily dug right in.
Something strange and deadly is afoot in 19th century Philadelphia. 16-year-old Eleanor Fitt goes to the train station to pick up her brother, Elijah, but instead of meeting Elijah at the station, the Dead have arrived. No one knows what has caused the recent rising of the Dead from their coffins; the only thing the citizens of Philadelphia know is that the Dead are dangerous. After hiding from the Dead, Eleanor finally finds a note from her brother, saying he has been delayed — and the note has been hand-delivered by a corpse.
Avoiding the subject of the Dead, Eleanor simply tells their mother that Elijah has been delayed. Her mother then decides to change the welcome-home party she had planned into a seance to summon the spirit of Eleanor’s dead father. This wouldn’t be the first seance her mother has hosted, and they are always a farce, so Eleanor agrees to play along. However this time something goes horribly wrong — a spirit appears, and it is most certainly not Eleanor’s father.
Nervous for her brother and terrified of the malicious spirit her mother has conjured, Eleanor seeks the help of the Spirit-Hunters, a Ghostbusters-esque group that has arrived in Philadelphia to hunt down and put a stop to the necromancer that has been animating and controlling the Dead. And while the Spirit-Hunters are initially hesitant to trust Eleanor or allow her to help, they ultimately are forced to join forces as the necromancer gains power, and Eleanor may hold the key to stopping him.
I want to say first off that I found this book action-packed and entertaining. I really enjoyed Eleanor, even if she did seem a tad too liberated for 1876. She was fun and feisty and tried her very best to be useful instead of just reporting on what she knew and then waiting for the Big Strong Men to save her. Yes, she probably would have been better off on several occasions if she had let other people handle certain situations, but I admired that she wanted to be helpful and contribute.
I also really enjoyed all of the Spirit-Hunters. They were an interesting and assorted group of personalities, each with their own intriguing backstory that wound up being crucial to the plot. It was nice to have such a varied group of characters in a setting as restrictive as 19th century Philadelphia.
As a bonus, none of the villains (save one) were actually all bad. Each had some redeeming qualities that allowed me to understand them, and even sympathize to a degree, even if I totally disagreed with their actions. I liked that none of the zombie shenanigans was as simple as evil for evil’s sake.
And as far as zombie shenanigans goes, there was plenty. It was exciting and fast-paced, with the requisite amount of grossness that any book dealing with zombies has. It was almost reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, in that it blended the nasty violence of zombies together with the refined etiquette and culture of earlier times.
So those were all the things I liked. Unfortunately, they were counterbalanced by a lot of things I wasn’t so fond of.
The main problem I had in this book was the predictability. By the first chapter, I had figured out the identity of the main villain, and by the fourth, I had also figured out most of the villain’s motivations. It took the entire book to confirm my suspicions, and when it finally did, there weren’t any surprises thrown into the mix. I could pretty much have stopped reading at chapter 4 and still been able to give an accurate synopsis of the entire book. And that was disappointing.
Also, in spite of the fact that I was able to figure everything out really early on, I thought that the characters in the book — especially Eleanor — made some decisions based on giant leaps of conjecture that had huge holes in their logic. Eleanor would suddenly remember something from her childhood, apply it loosely to something that happened recently, and firmly decide that not only were the events related, but that they suddenly explained everything. The fact that she was prone to wild conjecture wasn’t the problem. The problem was that her assumptions almost always proved to be correct, whereas in real life, “logic” like hers normally proves faulty. And meanwhile, while she was Sherlock Holmes-ing her way through a convoluted backstory, she was missing tons of painfully obvious clues right in front of her face. Either the girl is remarkably perceptive and intuitive or she’s not. It seemed really odd for her to be both.
So while I enjoyed the premise of the story, the characters, and the feel of the storytelling, the execution came off a bit clunky to me. It just didn’t gel as cohesively as I wanted it to, especially since this was, underneath all the zombies and supernatural elements, a mystery. I like mysteries to be tight and smart, and this one felt weak.
I still think that fans of zombie stories, especially zombie-historical mashups, will enjoy this book. It’s fun and fast and chock-full of zombie craziness. It just fell flat as the intelligent mystery I wanted it to be.
Content Guide: Contains oodles of zombie violence and some profanity