The third in Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, Dreadnought, is one of several steampunk books I picked up when Borders had its closeout sales. At closeout prices, I couldn’t resist, especially one of Priest’s books: she has been called the “high priestess of steampunk” and comes to me with high recommendations, ones that I was worried it wouldn’t live up to. Priest’s steampunk vision involves an eruption of toxic gases in Seattle causing an influx of zombies, and while the combination of steampunk + civil war + zombie apocalypse sounds like a match made in heaven, I’ve been leery about setting high expectations based on the awesomeness of a book’s parts after some of the duds I’ve ended up with in recent years.
Mercy Lynch, nurse at the Confederate field hospital outside Richmond, is having one of those days. First she finds out that her Yankee husband died in a Confederate prison camp. Then she finds that her long-estranged father is dying out in Washington Territory. After weighing her options, she decides it may be worth the risk to undertake the journey to Seattle—a journey that, by airship, riverboat, and train, will criss-cross the lines of the warring Confederate States and the United States, bringing Mercy over and across the line of battle. Never mind that the only train heading West is a Union battle-wagon named Dreadnought—whose name alone invokes fear in the hearts of Confederate soldiers—carrying a mysterious and heavily-guarded cargo in its second and last cars.
Let’s ignore that that a “neutral” Texas Ranger and some Mexican officials are coming aboard, searching for a legion of missing Mexican troopers heading ever northward. And put aside the bandits and Indians and Confederate chase-train all trying to stop the Dreadnought at all costs: Mercy is just a simple passenger on an everyday passenger train making an uneventful voyage to the Western territories. Right?
I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the writing: the prose and dialogue is much more “authentic” than “modern,” making it feel more alive and less like the 1890s as seen through the lens of a modern action movie. Cherie Priest has well earned her epithet as “the queen of steampunk;” the writing is there, the ideas are there, and they’re blended in a wonderful potpourri of entertainment. We get to see much of these alternate Americas, including a mecha battle between Blue and Gray, and a horde of… well, I won’t spoil the (however obvious) surprise that the book has in store. (Obvious in that I read the back cover to Boneshaker, and can put two and two together—the foreshadowing in Dreadnought is pretty obvious.) Priest introduces a lot of neat ideas, has outstanding and solid prose, and backs that up with interesting characters—including a strong female protagonist.
Maybe a few too many interesting characters: until Mercy boards the Dreadnought, the cast of bit players seems endless and ever-increasing, as new characters introduce themselves and then depart with rough abandon. I’ll chalk that up to a flaw on behalf of the “journey story” trope. Which is a trope that gives the book a feeling of plotlessness, as well: we know how it’ll end before we start, Mercy Lynch gets on a train and goes to see her dying father. Of course, what happens along the ride is entertaining and engaging, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling that the plot is built like railroad tracks: long, straightforward, and predictable. At least it has plenty of scenic turnouts and unique attractions along the way to make the ride interesting.
Is it a bad thing when I’m reading a book with steam-powered mecha and zombies in it, and the thing that bothers me the most about it is its history? Specifically, the alternate history where the Confederacy gives up slavery as an institution, which strikes me as far too revisionist. I realize that the Southern view of the American Civil War was as a states’ rights issue, and that Britain (the Confederacy’s primary trading partner) was strongly pro-abolition, but I find it hard to imagine a South where the slaves were freed a few years after starting a war over the isue—not just from a social perspective (go watch Birth of a Nation, filmed decades after the war, to see the lingering after-effects of the Civil War) but from an economic one (the South didn’t have either the manpower or the fiscal resources to suddenly free all of its slaves and roll them in as paid blue-collar workers).
Okay, nits have been thoroughly picked, so I can work around to my recommendation now. A delightful romp across steampunk America, Dreadnought is a fun and enjoyable read. As with many journey tales, the plot is a bit shallow—“Mercy Lynch takes a train to see her father”—but it’s what happens on that journey that make the book entertaining, and the scenery and setting that needs to make it interesting more than does the job. Since it covers the breadth of this alternate Civil War-era America, from the Richmond army hospital to the subterranean Seattle, there’s a lot of cool stuff to see. Combined with the spectacular prose and you have a brilliant book, pure pulpy goodness that uses its diverse elements well. I see why Priest is so esteemed in the steampunk field, and I foresee picking up the rest of her novels.