Book Review: ‘Something Strange and Deadly’ by Susan Dennard

Image Credit: Susan Dennard

As readers, we all have pet peeves and deal-breakers when it comes to what we like and what we don’t. Genres that I sometimes struggle with are paranormal, steampunk, and historical fiction. Which is why it’s kind of odd that I decided to read this paranormal-themed, steampunk-tinged historical fiction. I guess I was trying to convince myself to be open-minded, which isn’t such a bad thing!

Something Strange and Deadly takes place in the late 1800s in Philadelphia. Our main character, Eleanor, is actually a pretty forward-thinking lady, but her upbringing has encouraged her to suppress some of her more endearing traits – curiosity and intellect. Eleanor’s family used to be high society, so she was groomed to behave like a Lady with a capital L. After the death of her father, the family’s finances and social status began to suffer. Eleanor is hopeful that her older brother, Elijah, will return from his extensive travels and help her family recover.

Unfortunately Elijah’s arrival in Philadelphia is delayed, and in the meantime a necromancer has set up shop at a local cemetery. The necromancer is raising the dead from the cemetery and letting them run amok in Philadelphia, but the reasons for this are a mystery. Eleanor believes her brother has been detained by “The Dead,” and so she seeks the help of the Spirit Hunters, a small crew hired by the city to keep it safe from The Dead. With the Spirit Hunters on her side, Eleanor begins investigating The Dead and the mysterious necromancer in hopes of saving her brother and protecting the city.

While you might expect horror and gore out of this storyline, it’s actually handled more like a mystery. Eleanor’s natural curiosity and bravery combined with her vested interest in finding Elijah made her a perfect detective.  The Spirit Hunters, particularly the inventor with a chip on his shoulder, Daniel, were helpful allies. But really, Eleanor did most of the dirty work on her own. She was incredibly resourceful and intelligent, and she could be very persuasive when necessary. As the story progressed, Eleanor gained confidence and not only made progress in solving her mystery, but also made some great realizations about her ability to control her own destiny. She stood up for herself and kept her head in some sticky situations. As far as female leads in paranormal-themed YA novels tend to go, Eleanor was top notch.

As far as my setbacks regarding paranormal and steampunk genres are concerned, they didn’t really cause me to have any major issues with this book. Sure, there were a couple detailed descriptions of the Spirit Hunters’ various inventions that I skimmed over. And I maybe wasn’t as enthralled by the climactic ending sequence as much as someone who has a greater fondness for paranormal themes would be. But thanks to the way the author treated the majority of this book as a mystery, these things were just minor setbacks for me rather than deal breakers.

That said, if you’re in the market for a thriller or are looking forward to reading a book filled with zombies, you might be a bit disappointed. While there are strong paranormal themes throughout, the actual creepiness factor is fairly low through most of the book. And even when there are scenes featuring The Dead, they don’t really carry a sense of horror or even suspense…it’s much more matter-of-fact. These 1800s Philadelphia folks were surprisingly stoic when faced with rotting corpses.

Speaking of the historical aspect, I felt like that was handled very well here. In theory I like the idea of historical fiction, but I feel like most of the times I try to actually read it, I struggle to slog through it. I didn’t have that problem here. The author did a fantastic job of bringing historic Philadelphia to life and weaving in period language, fashion, and social hierarchy without alienating or confusing me as a reader. It was a nice balance of historical elements with more modern storytelling techniques.

The biggest issue I had with this book has very little to do with its actual content. There is going to be a sequel to this book, and I can’t say there was much going on at the end that has me on the edge of my seat for a follow-up. The story is tied up pretty well, and it seems like the few loose ends that were left were only there to justify a second book rather than out of any storytelling necessity. It feels like these days it’s impossible for a young adult book not to be part of a series if it’s paranormal, dystopian, fantasy – basically any genre besides contemporary. It’s getting a little old for me, but I can see how it’s appealing from a business angle and it gives some insurance to the authors, so I think it’s just something I’m going to have to live with.

Other than that, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I was able to get into Something Strange and Deadly and how much I enjoyed it despite my initial reservations. I’d recommend it especially to fans of paranormal YA, although it’s worth noting it’s not a paranormal romance. There is a little romance, but it’s never really the main focus of the story. This book really struck me as an ideal rainy day read – something a little dark and mysterious, easy to get into and fast-paced enough to lose yourself in it for a long time.

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I spend too much time reading and watching TV. The phrase "What is the meaning of this?!" always cracks me up. Puppies, Diet Coke and the '90s make me happy.

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