“Curiosity is a strong fire, and once ignited, it is not easily put out.”
Sixteen-year-old Eleanor Fitt’s brother is missing. After discovering the Dead are rising and wreaking havoc in Philadelphia, she knows that her brother is involved.
So Eleanor enlists the help of the Spirit-Hunters. This motley crew, hired to protect the city from supernatural forces, is after the necromancer who has been reanimating corpses. Their skills can save her brother. Yet as Eleanor spends time with the Spirit-Hunters and their handsome inventor, Daniel, the situation becomes dire. Now not only is her reputation at risk, but her very life hangs in the balance.
CW: gore, loss of a loved one, graphic injury, violence
If anything, I was NERVOUS coming into Something Strange and Deadly. I’m known for disliking zombie stories of almost all kinds, and historical fiction has to be done right in order to keep my attention. On the other hand, this is Susan Dennard’s debut series, and given how much I adore the Witchlands series, I figured she could make me like plenty that I don’t normally care for in my fiction.
Turns out I was mostly right! While there’s a good bit I wasn’t over the moon about, Sooz knows how to get a story rolling and keep it that way, which makes it impossible to put her work down. It’s sort of noticeable this is from the beginning of her career, especially given the depth and scope of the Witchlands series in comparison, but it’s a strong start, especially given how long it’s flown under the radar.
The first in the series, Something Strange and Deadly has its greatest strength in the sheer concept: 1870s Philadelphia, except the Dead keep rising. That one simple change to history as it stands turns everything on its head. The séances rich people were famously obsessed with have more weight here, as does the old superstition of bells over graves that ring when the dead move. Coupled with necromancy that can control the Dead, whether or not they’ve risen on their own, and the wheels set in motion for each character, and you end up with a wonderfully engaging setting with reanimated danger around every corner.
You can also see Sooz’s skill with characters at work. While I won’t claim the cast of SSD is as full of depth and nuance as the Witchlands cast, there’s no doubt that care is taken to give every single character motivation to proceed as they do through the story, whether you appreciate their aims or not. You get enough of an understanding of Eleanor’s mother to reach the point of despising her. You learn the corners of Daniel Sheridan well enough to know he’s not as prickly as he pretends to be. You know how Joseph feels regarding his role in the events surrounding the Dead, and how much he wants to do the right thing. And of course, you get Eleanor Fitt at full blast, the story told from her perspective, faults and fears and triumphs all at once.
That said, I do think SSD is typical in some ways. The romance wasn’t anything special (though Eleanor’s feelings regarding the not-quite-love-interest were…extra eh, given his role in her family’s misery), and the plot twists were easy for me to guess only a few chapters in, as the hints were dropped so heavily. Take that with a grain of salt, given my habit of picking up on plot twist clues very early, maybe earlier than I’m supposed to, but it did take away some of the fun to have complete certainty about the plot’s direction.
It also isn’t a book that handles race in at a standard we expect now. While not outright and intentionally racist, there’s a lot of assumed white until proven otherwise, as well as the apparently magic and certainly wise Black man, and the Chinese girl dressed as a boy who’s OF COURSE a stunning martial artist. Both Joseph and Jie do have their own depths (neither one is flat, and with the course of the series, they grow even more), but they do feel in some ways like they’ve been carved from stock tropes that are grounded in stereotypical and often racist depictions.
Overall, I think the Witchlands is a much better series, but it’s also the series that’s developed after this, after the experience that comes with finishing another series, and a lot of Sooz’s technical skill with plot and characters is still ready at hand here. That in itself is worth recognizing. At the same time, it wasn’t really a smash hit by any measure, and I have to be wary of the way the POC in the cast are presented, even if their inclusion was well meant.
If you’re looking for something that has that early 2010s YA flavor, down to the rebellious girl/tough guy romance, but with a dash of walking corpses, you may want to give Something Strange and Deadly a try. If anything, it’s nostalgia fuel, and sometimes that makes for a refreshing break.