I want to start off by saying this author’s work was recommended to me during my search for the “perfect” YA Debut novel. I want to focus on YA writing, so the best way to learn to write is to study those who have come before, and Susan Dennard’s work is a great place to start.
I’ll start with the spoiler-free book review for those interested in reading it, and I have three main positive comments to discuss.
Book-y Book Review!
1. This is a zombie novel for people who don’t like zombie novels.
I know this sounds weird, but it’s absolutely true. Just imagine a 16-year-old girl in her fru-fru Victorian era ball gown running around daring to talk to men without a third party introduction, and occasionally swatting at a zombie with her parasol. That’s the gist of it (but way better than I make it sound haha).
The zombies aren’t the main focus of the novel, though they’re the main incentive to get the excitement, and the story, going. They’re the constant backdrop that pushes the momentum like a steam train. Without the “Dead,” as they’re called in this book, there wouldn’t be much oomph. But even with that hanging over our heads, the story is focused on the character’s personal plight, making the “Dead” just an obstacle she must overcome, and doesn’t deviate from her goals for anything. Well, scratch that, it slightly deviates for an enjoyable romance which the main character immediately berates herself for losing focus.
2. The storyline momentum is lovely and linear. It reflects the perfect prose leading us through the story at a comfortable jog.
This novel does an excellent job of having a one-track ride focused on what the main character wants. It’s brought up on the first page, and goes all the way to the end. This feels like the main reason this book seems so crisp and clean, and that’s because there aren’t a bunch of messy or unnecessary side plots to trip us up. We have one clear goal, and we’re on a ride to the finish until we get there. I don’t know if this is a YA trait, or just a good general rule, but I found myself enjoying its simplicity.
If it weren’t for Susan’s immaculate and entertaining prose, I don’t think the linear aspect of this story would be quite as enjoyable. But needless to say, the prose was perfect, and the storytelling hooked me in every single page. What else is there to say?
3. The romance is done well, but doesn’t dominate the novel.
I won’t go into this much for the sake of avoiding spoilers, but I appreciate when a novel has a romance that’s just an attractive side dish. It’s done tastefully and I quite enjoyed how it was executed.
Okay time for dislikes. Not my favorite part of a book review, but it wouldn’t be thorough to exclude them just because I liked the book.
The novel itself is so character-intensive that I was thrown off when politics became a heavy issue after the mid-point of the novel. Plot wise, I understood, but I would have been happier without it. I don’t mind politics of the completely fantastical nature since I’m not familiar with the world and not attached to it. But I do mind modern politics being discussed and judged in my fru-fru zombie swatting action. Let’s just say I skimmed a few pages until it got back to the good stuff.
2. Implausible/Unnecessary Scene
Early in the book a seance is being held as part of the party’s entertainment. I accepted that without an issue since it was a popular party gag during the late 1800s. However, out of the party guests, one couple was described as boring our main character with their wish to discuss the preacher’s latest sermons. I found that pretty strange. Most churchgoers wouldn’t be caught dead going to a seance (pun intended-haha), as it’s heavily against the religion and ironically also preached against in sermons.
So at this point, I was expecting to read how this couple was perhaps complaining about the fact there was a seance, or something to explain why this detail was there, but talk of this couple didn’t come up again. There is only one sentence that describes this scene, and it’s in parentheses, and it could have been left out without changing the story or the scene at all. So I felt it would have made more sense just to not include it, as I was waiting for an explanation why churchgoers would be at a seance for the remainder of the chapter and never got one.
3. I’m in a love/hate relationship with the last chapter
No spoilers, so I won’t elaborate more than saying the ending was stellar and managed to surprise me, but at the same time it wrapped up with a “whelp, here are all the things I plan on doing in book 2, READ IT OKAY?” The tone just pulled too much out of the main character dealing with the ending resolutions and already speeding towards the new story threads for book two. I will keep reading, and I didn’t need the push and the shove to do it.
That concludes the reader portion of the book review! Keep reading if you are a writer and would like to review my notes for what can be learned from Something Strange and Deadly for writing a YA Fantasy novel.
Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!
1. Keep the plot, as well as the prose, clear and concise. And most importantly, end when the core conflict is resolved.
As I mentioned earlier, the storyline is extremely linear. In any novel, but YA especially, linear storytelling is an important trait. The main issue in Something Strange and Deadly is Eleanor’s wish to find her missing brother who has seemingly been kidnapped by the Dead, and that drives all of her actions. It is her main motivator and because it’s an honorable goal, we support all her acts of rebellion because she’s being completely selfless.
Aside from making the character likable and giving the reader a clear understanding of her motivations, it allows the story to have a clear thread to follow. Each chapter is unraveling the mystery of what’s happened to her brother, why, and what she’s going to do about it. And when we finally find him, that’s when the story concludes to its end, as it should.
What I also notice is how clean Susan’s prose is throughout the novel, and there are very few awkward places. There are also very few instances where unnecessary things or instances are described. There’s no repetition like some debut novels tend to do. If you don’t know what I mean by repetitive, then that means you need to study prose. And no, I don’t mean using the same words like “he stepped on the step” as “repetitive,” although that’s a no-no as well. For studying prose, I would suggest The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. It’s like a modern “Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.” If you’ve never heard of either of those, I strongly suggest you click the links and check it out.
Not to go on a tangent, but this reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of ‘The Elements of Style.’ The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” – Dorothy Parker (Source: NY Times)
2. Write to your target audience.
Susan’s target audience, if I had to guess, are fantasy readers who enjoy Victorian era/Steampunk-esque stories. We don’t typically read zombie novels, and ironically this book is heavily about zombies, but at the same time it’s not like any zombie novel you’d see out there. That’s because the zombie readers are actually not the target audience.
There are plenty of instances where Victorian era quirks are explored, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. My favorite was when the main character realized she introduced herself to a man without a third party introduction during her early rebellion stages to find out what’s happened to her brother.
At the same time, I feel Susan wrote herself into a corner. The main character, Eleanor, constantly lies to her mother where she’s going, constantly manages to get a chaperone or invent one, and often has to make excuses. I found it entertaining at first, but then after a while it grew to be a bore and verged on not being believable. With the linear story structure, we can’t have side-plots to explore how she manages to do what needs doing to find her brother while disregarding social graces expected of her class. So it winds up being rushed and unclean.
To elaborate, her mother is not an idiot, and should have been able to realize something was up. I would have liked it if there had been a few more scenes where Eleanor had to get more creative to get her mom off her back, or just confronted her about what was actually going on. The mother is painted out to be this selfish woman who almost sees her daughter as property to marry off to bring the family wealth and respect again, and after losing her husband and her son’s no where to be found, why would she treat her last remaining family member this way? I just found it to be a stretch, and I wanted the mother to be more likable. Even at the end, the mother is just casually mentioned as being holed up in her bedroom and never coming out, and is still resistant to doing anything that may tarnish her family’s reputation.
While that issue existed, the target audience was still maintained and I understand why the mother didn’t get a character arc. The audience Susan targeted probably didn’t care much for the mother, and was fine with this lack of character development. It was a common theme throughout the story that there weren’t a bunch of loose ends or unnecessary side plots. We have the main story with its complicated history and anything else that doesn’t support this spiderweb doesn’t get developed. So in that sense, I understand why the mother is just a plot device. The audience wouldn’t have wanted her to have a side character development and conclusion because it didn’t support the main theme. It would have just complicated things and given the reader more to worry about.
That finally concludes my book review of Something Strange and Deadly! Apparently I had a lot to say. I hope you enjoyed it, and be sure to leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. Also I’d like to know if you read the book, how much you agreed with or if you felt differently. I always enjoy striking up conversations.
See you again once I finish the sequel, A Darkness Strange and Lovely!