Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard – HarperTeen – Novel: Historical, Romance, Young Adult – Buy it here – Our Rating: Three Pipes
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 the maddeningly stubborn yet handsome Daniel, the situation becomes dire. And now, not only is her reputation on the line, but her very life may hang in the balance.
I don’t normally read YA, but when I do, it’s usually because the novel came highly recommended. Such was the case with Susan Dennard’s debut novel Something Strange and Deadly. I’d heard good things about the book from writers whose opinions I trust. Plus, there were a number of obvious selling points. A female protagonist with a parasol-turned-weapon. Historical Philadelphia. An inventor love-interest. Zombies with steampunk flair. So, I set aside my anti-YA inclinations and bought the book.
It wasn’t what I expected.
Not that I really knew what to expect, but still. Or maybe I’m ashamed to retroactively admit I was expecting an American YA zombie version of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series. Which, I think, I was. I should have known SSaD would be nothing like that.
Let’s start with the obvious: genre. Something Strange and Deadly doesn’t feel like steampunk, regardless of how it’s branded. No, it’s basically your run-of-the-mill YA paranormal romance. There’s some attempt to invoke SCIENCE and spiffy-sounding inventions, to be sure, but it always felt a bit thin to me, dulled by too many layers of supernatural pseudo-scientific babble. This isn’t a criticism of the book, simply of marketing and personal preference. I adore steampunk while paranormal romance induces migraines; expecting one and receiving the other wasn’t a pleasant surprise, but it was by no means a fault of the book so much as my own expectations.
So, give me a moment while I put my erroneous expectations aside. Now, then.
Miss Eleanor Fitt is not your average YA protagonist. She often remarks that she is no great beauty (though the cute blonde model on the cover seems to contradict this). She quotes Shakespeare frequently, despite her rather unclear educational background. She’s impulsive, but always with good cause. She’s fiercely loyal to those she loves, friends and family alike. Although the Philadelphia Fitts have historically been part of so-called high society, they are currently poor and rather disgraced. Eleanor struggles to fit in and often feels as if she doesn’t belong. She calls herself a misfit. She is, really, the sort of imperfect heroine most teenage girls will relate to.
The secondary characters are also unusual. Daniel Sheridan, Eleanor’s love interest, has a fascinating backstory. Another member of the Spirit-Hunters, Jie, also piqued my interest, for reasons that are unfortunately rather spoilerish. Along with their fearless leader Joseph, the Spirit-Hunters certainly meet diversity quotas, which, while far from a complaint, I found rather surprising, along with the relative lack of prejudice Jie and Joseph face in 1876 Philadelphia. All in all, however, Dennard did craft a fascinating and sympathetic cast of characters. While their actions and feelings may, at times, have struck me as unrealistic and unbelievable, they did keep me interested.
On that note, I don’t have a lot to say regarding the Romance, with a capital R because it read like genre romance. That is to say, I didn’t really feel it. Sure, Eleanor and Daniel are both compelling in their own right. They exchange some barbed dialogue. They take risks for each other. They kiss and are clearly attracted to one another. But love? I didn’t feel the development. Eleanor told me her feelings, but she didn’t show me. Although I want to blame the book, I know I shouldn’t. This is a typical problem in romance. To the author, it’s obvious that two characters are Destined to Love Each Other and as a result, the development of these feelings doesn’t come through. And, you know, it’s such a common problem that I’m beginning to realize writing the process of falling in love realistically is just very difficult. It isn’t Dennard’s fault, and probably isn’t realistic of me to hold YA paranormal romance to the standards of realistic emotional expression.
Plot-wise, there’s actually quite a lot going on in Something Strange and Deadly. Yes, some aspects of the plot are predictable, but at this point, I’ve stopped expecting books to surprise me. There were more action-lite sequences than I’d anticipated, and they kept me reading. There are plenty of zombies, as promised, and a necromancer. What’s more, there’s a healthy dose of family angst and social comedy. Of course, there are also a number of secrets–people and events–from certain characters’ pasts that come to haunt them in a way that is relevant to the main plot and left me rather conflicted. On one side, it’s elegant, the way everything ties together; on the other, it’s far too convenient and ultimately contrived. In literature, coincidences also induce migraines.
All in all, Something Strange and Deadly isn’t a bad book. It isn’t a great book, either, but, you know, most books aren’t. Mostly, it just wasn’t my thing. If I actually liked YA and paranormal and traditional romance, I might have enjoyed it more.