Better Off Dead? Working Stiff by Rachel Caine

It started with vampires, werewolves, and witches, then angels and demons hit big, but I don’t know too many people who predicted that zombies would be the next supernatural phenomenon to break out of the horror genres and take over urban fantasy. Maybe take over is too strong a term, but they are enjoying an unprecedented popularity of late, and not just as the monsters other characters fight either. Dust by Joan Frances Turner, Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, Die For Me by Amy Plum, and my favorite, My Life As A White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland all feature zombies as main characters with thoughts, emotions, and motivations beyond shambling after brains.

The latest book to feature a zombie protagonist is Working Stiff, the first book in the new Revivalist series by Rachel Caine (available now from Roc) who is well known for her inventive Weather Warden series (and it’s spinoff Outcast series) and her endlessly entertaining Morganville Vampire series.

Bryn Davis is fresh out of the army when she starts working as a funeral director for Fairview Mortuary. Having seen death in all its shades while on tour in Iraq, Bryn isn’t squeamish about her morbid new job, she’s actually happy to be able to bring dignity to the dearly departed, enough to put up with her co-workers who include an aloof boss and a slimy embalmer. But on her very first day, something terrible happens and Bryn is forced to join the ranks of the undead as she tracks down stolen pharmaceuticals, attempts to thwart a plot that would sell undead life to the highest bidder, and figure out a way to survive long enough to do both.

Unlike some of zombie books listed above, in Working Stiff, zombies aren’t the result of magic or deals with the devil. They are 100% manmade marvels, the unintentional side effect from the latest attempt to cure cancer via specially programmed nanites. In this case, the nanites can ‘revive’ a dead person, heal all but the most grievous wounds, and pause decay… for 24 hours. After that, you need another shot of nanites or things get pretty gross pretty quick.

This fresh approach on zombie mythology was a strong selling point for me and it didn’t disappoint. The pharmaceutical corporation, Pharmadene, is suitably shady with both ignorant and aware employees within the company with regards to plans for the drug, Returné. The opportunities for abuse are staggering and expressed in completely chilling detail. The character of Irene Harte was especially effective as the heartless, opportunistic vice president. She doesn’t get tons of page time, but she makes an impression.

Whenever zombies are involved, any romance has to be handled delicately, and I will say that it comes off well in Working Stiff. When she has her shots, Bryn is in the exact same condition that she was in prior to her death. No gray flesh, blood red eyes, or pesky cravings for brains. All her appendages are secured and accounted for. Her love interest is fully aware of her undead state and has seen first hand what happens when the shots stop. Given the severity of Bryn’s situation and the urgency of her assignment, the romance is appropriately low key and very slow building.

I did have a couple big problems with Walking Stiff that kept me from enjoying it as much as I’ve enjoyed Rachel Caine’s other books. I just didn’t believe it. And I don’t mean the zombies, the explanation for them was very realistic. What I didn’t believe was Bryn. She is a very young woman when she dies and is brought back with no guarantee that she won’t be left to rot in the morning. I would expect anyone in her position to stop and mourn the future that they would no longer get to have. No chance at children, any romantic prospects are now limited to those individuals into necrophilia, and the crippling fear that you would literally have to watch and feel your body putrefy around you in the very near future. Bryn doesn’t really do this. She goes through the stages of grief so fast that if I’d blinked, I would have missed them. Then it’s back to work with her new objective to find out who is selling the zombie drug on the black market in the hopes that maybe, maybe, Pharmadene will keep her alive for a few more days.

I also didn’t understand why Bryn was so valuable to the company who made the drug. Why exactly is Bryn the ideal candidate to hunt down and the find the company leak? Weren’t there a dozen other, qualified, people better suited to the job that wouldn’t require the substantial investment that Bryn needed to stay alive? There was never an adequate answer given. Likewise, within the span of a week, Bryn has new friends who willingly jeopardize their lives and the lives of their families to help her not knowing if they will even have enough of the drug to keep her alive for a few days.

Maybe I wouldn’t have minded so much if the writing had been amazing, but it wasn’t. I was surprised at the amount of telling rather than showing writing in Working Stiff. Sentences like this one were not uncommon: “She was a little nervous, but she also felt proud and happy.” That might account for why I found most of the characterizations to be pretty flat.

Working Stiff is also seriously depressing. Urban fantasy is often dark — that’s often the appeal, but there is usually a glimmer of hope, however small, that the protagonist will win, or at least survive. That’s not really the case here. Bryn needs a shot everyday, sometimes more than one if she is severely injured, or she starts to rot. The knowledge is constant and demoralizing. She will never get better. She will always live in fear that there will be no more shots. So even if she wins, she still ultimately looses.

Overall, I’m not nearly as impressed with this zombie working with the dead tale as I was with Diana Rowland’s My Life As A White Trash Zombie. The zombie origin in Working Stiff is a good one that hits a little to close to home in the scientific age we live in. It isn’t hard to imagine a group of scientists working in a lab somewhere with technology that could one day produce our very own version of Returné. There are plenty of scares and even a little romance to be found in this thriller, but they come saddled with an unrealistic protagonist and a demoralizing story. Rachel Caine has proven herself to be adept at writing exciting series in the paranormal genres and I’m hopeful that the next Revivalist book won’t stagger as much as the debut.


Abigail Johnson manages the Tor.com Urban Fantasy Facebook and Twitter accounts and is 97% sure the zombie drug Returné doesn’t exist.

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