Saturday, 1 September 2012

review: Something Strange and Deadly

by Susan Dennard
HarperTeen, July 24 2012
young adult steampunk horror

In 1876 Philadelphia, awakening corpses has just become a big problem -- even more so for Eleanor Fitt, whose brother hasn't come home from New York... and whose latest message is delivered to her by a real, dead corpse. The Spirit-Hunters, a small group composed of the very proper Joseph Boyer, unrefined but determined Daniel Sheridan and power-comes-in-small-packages Jie Chen, maybe her only solution. But as past political intrigues surface, currents secrets threaten to blow Eleanor's world apart. Metaphorically and literally.
The cover:

First off: the colour scheme is stellar. The moody shadow-lilac to saturated metal fuchsia sets off the blue text well, though that extra stylized G bothers me the way it touches the E below. The black dress is deceptively simple and suits the model, while the faint clockwork gears in the background keep this cover from looking too much like a paranormal romance.
(Also, I love her gloves. Can I have them?)

The book:

Yay for having expectations met! Eleanor is an ideal protagonist: unassuming enough in the beginning so no possibility of a bad first impression exists, and later strong when the situation calls for it. She's a convincing 19th-century heroine, in other words, with very relatable issues: being overweight (especially in the era of corsets and petticoats), searching for meaning beyond reputation and trying to find the choices she only just realizes she has.

The development of secondary characters provides a rare cultural diversity. Joseph Boyer is Creole (his dialogue is lightly sprinkled with the language), and Jie Chen is a Chinese girl pretending to be a boy -- and she's gifted with some eye-opening lines for Eleanor regarding women's choices. As for Daniel, his rough-around-the-edges personality is a refreshing compromise between flashy bad boy and effortlessly suave gentleman. Side characters Mr. Clarence Wilcox and Eleanor's mother serve their purpose well.

This book is 388 pages long. Thank goodness each of those pages is put to use. Dennard weaves quite a thick plot, and sensibly, each chapter allows another piece of a piece of the puzzle to be presented, upping the tension. The political intrigue originating in the past is a sturdy link to the story's supernatural elements, though Daniel's past is somewhat rushed and uneven, as is the credibility of the necromancer's identity. As well, the Exhibition, a display of modern technology, could easily have been more fleshed out to become a living, breathing setting rather than just a background.

After a few surprisingly well-described action sequences, the final chapter arrives, and I hereby state that it's the best last chapter I've read. Eleanor isn't spared any injuries (indeed, it's going to be interesting to see how she manages in the final two books), and that the same time she deals with her romantic situation with aplomb: "My stomach clenched painfully. But it was all right; it would be all right. Better to know than to wonder." (p. 387) And Eleanor's determined strength in the final four paragraphs... well, I won't spoil them for you.

Rating: 4.3 out of 5