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Book Review: Working Stiff, by Rachel Caine

Full confession: I’ve actually met Rachel Caine. Not once, but twice! True, she doesn’t have any idea who I am but that’s ok. It’s a brush with fame, darn it, and it’s all mine! I enjoyed meeting her. She’s very nice, and works her ass off to deliver an enjoyable story.

I’ve read two of the Weather Warden series, and three of the Morganville Vampire series. Those looking for vampires or djinn will be disappointed in this one. Those looking for something different will find it here. Some will be tempted to call this a zombie series debut. And while I think the idea of zombies was probably the spark that started it, it’s a long way from your typical zombie myth. I found the premise fascinating. While the overall tone might be a bit on the dark side, typical for an urban fantasy, I thought it was more interesting than depressing.

First line: “Bryn’s first embalming instructor had told her, straight up, that two kinds of people entered the death business: freaks and true believers. Bryn Davis didn’t think she was either one of those. For her, it was a prime career opportunity – a genuine profession.” Not bad! I was immediately intrigued. I can’t recall ever reading a story about a funeral director. It had the potential to be incredibly dull, but it wasn’t.  Not sure that repeating the name was necessary right there in the first paragraph but that’s just nit picky.

Mechanics: Nothing unusual in this one. It’s third person, and comfortably so.

Voice: The voice, to me, is more established here than the Weather Warden series. I had a hard time with that series; the tone always left me feeling flat and uninspired. Working Stiff, however, has Caine coming into her own, I think. She’s much more confident, and it shows. The voice is easy, the tone comfortable. It gave the whole story an overall feeling of a tale told by a friend or neighbor. Not bubbly, not snarky, just plain nice with a side of humor (as evidenced by the title). It makes for an easy, fast read.

Characters:   The series rests on the shoulders of Bryn Davis. For some, the easy going voice might lead them to believe the character herself is flat or lifeless. I don’t agree. Just because the prevalence these days is for snarky, kick-ass female leads doesn’t mean that someone who isn’t either of those things is dull or boring. Don’t get me wrong, any female who is ex-military is by definition kick-ass. However, it never feels in the forefront for this character. It almost feels like something she’d rather forget. I actually did forget about it not far into the book. She’s ex-military, but she’s not Jack Reacher in drag.

Actually she’s just like the majority of us, a regular girl who has things in her past she’d rather get past. What interested me, then, was seeing if someone like this could rise to the challenge in trying circumstances. the short answer? Yes. The long answer? I feel like Bryn has some growing to do, but as this is the first story and as she’s just been through a pretty daunting experience, I’ll cut her some slack. She begins to rise toward the end. Her principles kicked into high gear and we get to see what probably made her a great soldier. I liked that, as I thought it was lacking near the beginning.

At the start she seems almost dead, pardon the pun. Near the end, she’s more alive (pardon the pun again. If you read the story, you’ll see what I mean). I won’t say more as it would spoil some of the plot. I’ll just say I found her likable and by the end was cheering her on. Her sister actually has a lot more spunk, which I quite liked as well. She’s a bit player in this story but I suspect we’ll see more of her in the next. The other main characters were fairly well rounded. I’d like to see more development from them but…again, for the first story it was ok. There’s a mad scientist I quite enjoyed. I hope he comes back, he has the potential to steal the show.

Plot: As the beginning of the series, this story sets up an alternate reality based on our own. As such, I think it feels a bit slow at first. There’s backstory that must be told. I didn’t think it was overly heavy, and it picked up before I got bored. There’s a hint of romance, just enough to drive you crazy actually, not enough to satisfy and toward the end it really kind of made me frustrated. It felt to me as though there might have been more and then it was edited out. Future story material? Worried it would turn sappy? Whatever the reason, I didn’t especially like how it was handled. It’s a very small part of the plot so it doesn’t ruin the story or anything, but I found myself wishing she’d left it out entirely rather than tease as she did. There are a couple of subplots that are left hanging at the end for future stories but the overall ending was satisfying. There are elements of mystery, thriller and gore, all wrapped up and delivered by a…well…stiff.

Maybe I’ve been reading too many urban fantasies lately, but I didn’t find this overly dark, despite the subject matter. I thoroughly enjoyed the lack of vampires. The detail that kept me reading was the creation of the world. Caine’s take on how our modern world might create a zombie is fascinating. It makes me shudder actually, because I could envision it happening, along with the bureaucratic response to it. Read it for this, if nothing else. It’s not a typical zombie fest. I wouldn’t call it a zombie story at all except that’s the closest thing we have to what she’s created. No brains are eaten, I promise.

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