Rachel Caine’s Working Stiff is technically a zombie novel, but it’s not your typical zombie novel. It’s not your typical urban fantasy, either. In fact, it might be more properly termed urban soft science fiction, as the zombifying agent is a nanotech drug rather than magic. But whatever you call it, it’s an excellent book that has me kicking myself for not having tried Caine’s novels before (I’d only read her short story “Death Warmed Over”).
Bryn Davis is one of the most relatable urban-fantasy heroines I’ve seen. She’s neither Superwoman nor a clinging vine. She’s just a young career woman with an endearing mix of strengths and vulnerabilities, who is forced into a desperate existence and must struggle to survive.
We first meet Bryn as she’s about to begin work at Fairview Mortuary. Working in the funeral business may seem like an odd choice of profession, but Bryn isn’t bothered by bodies after a stint in the Army, and she finds a sense of honor in working with the dead. But her first day on the job is a day from hell — and that’s before she stays late at the funeral home and learns that the owner is selling an expensive drug that brings clients back from the dead. Now Bryn knows too much. She is murdered…
…and then wakes up. Turns out Fairview was being raided that same night by men from Pharmadene, the company that makes the resurrection drug, Returné. Thinking Bryn might have information on Fairview’s supplier, they used the drug to bring her back. Now she is, to all appearances, alive, as long as she gets her daily shot of Returné. If she doesn’t, her body will begin to break down and she will die a slow, agonizing death. If she can’t provide any useful information to Pharmadene, she’ll be written off as a bad investment and her shots cut off. If she does sniff out the supplier, Pharmadene will have no more use for her and again, no more shots. Working Stiff is filled with nonstop tension, as Bryn investigates the mysterious supplier and gets deeper into danger from Pharmadene with every pricey shot that goes into her arm.
Yet she’s not as alone as she thinks. Caine brings two wonderful men into Bryn’s unlife, but this isn’t a love-triangle cliché. One of the men does indeed become a love interest, after a slow, cautious growth of trust. The other is that rarest of creatures in urban fantasy: a dear platonic friend.
There’s not much more I can say without spoiling the twists, but I will say that Working Stiff is really, really good. It’s sometimes creepy, sometimes sad, sometimes terrifying — Bryn’s death scene is a wrenching example of all three — but always riveting, and it’ll make you think about what really makes a person “alive.” The ending leaves Bryn with even more troubles than before, and leaves the reader jonesing for the sequel.
There’s one loose end that niggles at my brain, but you might consider it a spoiler, so highlight the following text only if you want to read it: I’m a big dog lover, and Bryn’s sweet, brave bulldog Mr. French is a great addition to the story. So I wonder, where is he? He simply isn’t mentioned in the later chapters of the story. I hope he’s OK, and that he’s either blithely pooping on Bryn’s floor or that Liam swooped in and got him. I’m worried about the little guy! [END SPOILER].