Earlier this year, the Weekly ran a cover story on Fort Worth-based urban fantasy novelist Rachel Caine, whose real name is Roxanne Longstreet Conrad. After publishing many books under various pen names in the ’90s, Conrad hit it big as Caine with two series: the Weather Warden books, about an international team of agents who control the elements to stave off natural disasters, and the young adult Morganville Vampire books, about a small Texas college town controlled by bloodsuckers. The Morganville novels have taken her to The New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists and on book-signing tours to greet teen and twentysomething fans around the United States, Europe, and Australia.
The ultra-prolific Caine/Conrad is back in the land of adult genre fiction with her new novel, Working Stiff, the first in a new series called Revivalist. Her books are tied together by self-deprecating protagonists whose femaleness is mostly a moot point. While the hurdles of succeeding in a man’s fantasy action world aren’t ignored, Caine’s female heroes don’t ask for sympathy –– they kick ass with efficiency and aplomb. Caine equips them with special powers, weapons, and combat skills but, more importantly, with self-doubts and moral conundrums. The author knows a crusader questioning her abilities and her mission is always more suspenseful than some robotic avenger with no self-awareness. This is the key to the smart, pulpy pleasure of Working Stiff — non-heroic readers can easily project themselves into the designer high heels of Bryn Davis, the gorgeous 26-year-old zombie chick trying to maneuver her way through the labyrinthine corporate machinations of a corrupt pharmaceutical company called Pharmadene.
Yep, Bryn is a member of the undead club. Zombies are a hot property these days thanks to the AMC cable series The Walking Dead and movies like Zombieland. The undead in Working Stiff aren’t shambling predators hell-bent on brain casserole but dead people who’ve been revived –– hence the series title Revivalist –– by an experimental drug called Returne that was developed by Pharmedene. Bryn, a young Iraq War veteran with hints of post-traumatic stress disorder, stumbles into her zombie status when she gets hired as the funeral director at a family-owned Southern California mortuary called Fairview. The owners are buying illicit Returne from a Pharmadene insider and selling it on the street to bereaved families desperate to revive deceased loved ones. There is a catch, though. Returne keeps dead people alive for only a few days, which means takers need a daily injection of the stuff to keep from sliding back into a state of half-living decay that Caine describes with one gruesome and memorably effective scene two-thirds of the way through the book.