Book Review: Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest’s novel Boneshaker was released in 2009, and was an instant hit for it’s dramatic engagement with many of the steampunk tropes. It was named Steampunk Book of the Year by Steampunk.com  The cover of the book was self-consciously taking on the standard elements of steampunk: brass goggles, airships. The novel introduced us to Cherie Priest’s alternate history: The Clockwork Century, where the American civil war raged on for decades, and zombies roam the streets of Seattle. The book was fun, but there were some valid criticisms about the branching narratives. The storyline of Briar Wilkes was considerably stronger than that of her son, Zeke.

In the sequel novel, Dreadnought, Priest uses a more traditional single-path narrative, and uses a strong female protagonist again. It’s a very liminal text, with many borders and boundaries being crossed. In the tale, nurse Mercy Lynch must travel from Virginia across the continent by airship, and steam locomotive to the west coast. Along the way, Union and Confederate soldiers and sympathizers interact with Texans, and Mexicans. As the main action of the novel takes place upon the Union locomotive Dreadnought, the tension increases steadily as they approach the mountain passages through the Rockies. It’s really effective plotting, as there are really no options for escaping from the oncoming battle. In these tight quarters, Priest still manages to weave together several interesting subplots, which link together with some introduced in Boneshaker.

While reading the novel, I quickly came to a point where I couldn’t put the book down. At an even 400 pages in length, that’s no mean feat. While Dreadnought may not have quite the same level of appeal as Boneshaker, especially for more youthful audiences, as Mercy Lynch is older than young Zeke Wilkes was, I think Dreadnought is ultimately a more finely crafted novel. The books can be read in either order, and while they do tie together, they are largely independent stories. I’m looking forward to reading more of Cherie Priest’s novels. While Boneshaker and Dreadnought are published by Tor, Priest has also written Clementine in this alternate history, which is published by Subterranean Press. Unfortunately, the Kindle ebook isn’t available in Canada, and the Subterranean Press book appears to be out of print.

November Quick Reviews

Reviews of K.W. Jeter’s “Infernal Devices”, Tim Powers’ “The Stress of Her Regard” and Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker”.

I’ve finally got some more reading done recently. K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard and Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker.

Infernal Devices (1987)

Infernal Devices definitely has the whole steampunk vibe going, which isn’t surprising, as Jeter coined the term the year this novel was published, in a letter to Locus about his earlier novel Morlock Night. Infernal Devices is a fun little adventure novel, although the plot twists were generally unexpected. Steam power itself is not in much evidence here, as the technology in the story is more clockwork oriented. The mad scientist in this story has since passed away, and it is his “infernal devices” which remain the problem of the tale. Other now-common tropes of steampunk literature include mistaken identities, clockwork automata, and flying machines. This was a fast-paced novel, but I wish it had lingered in some areas. While enjoyable, it didn’t get very deep. Fans of steampunk literature should read this, but I probably won’t read this a second time.

The Stress of Her Regard (1989)

Tim Powers was another of the triumvirate of authors initially associated with steampunk (The third being Blaylock). I started reading Powers recently, as the Anubis Gates is sometimes considered steampunk. The Stress of Her Regard is not steampunk, however, but rather what is termed Secret History. Powers uses the real documented lives of historical figures, such as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, weaving them together and providing a supernatural story which fits within the established historical record. In this story, great literary figures such as Byron and Shelley have relationships with supernatural beings identified as vampires (John Polidori, a contemporary of Byron and a character in this book, wrote a short story called “The Vampyre” which is the first known vampire story written in English). However, unlike the beautiful shiny vampires from Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles 1973) , Stephanie Meyer (Twilight 2005), or L.J. Smith (The Vampire Diaries 1991), the vampires in The Stress of Her Regard are ancient stone spirits. Powers weaves a powerful tale, and this work has considerable literary merit. Powers clearly did extensive research into mythology and history to write a fantastic book. While tween vamp fans probably won’t be interested in this story, but those familiar with the literature of the Romantic period should enjoy it. I’ll likely reread this novel again before the 2011 Renovation Worldcon, where Powers will be a Guest of Honour.

Boneshaker (2009)

Cherie Priest’s latest novel is set in an alternate history Seattle while the American Civil War has dragged on for nearly two decades. It has made it on Publishers Weekly’s list of the top novels of 2009. I was really looking forward to reading this story, and it lived up to my expectations. The book itself is crafted well. The text was printed in a dark brown ink. Still easily readable, but it gave this story a much more earthy feel. Boneshaker has two main characters which we follow into the walled off city inhabited by “rotters”. Of the two, Briar Wilkes is a more defined character. Zeke is, well, a teenaged boy.  While his search is for his family’s tarnished legacy, Briar is forced to confront her own personal relationship to the past horrors. Cherie Priest uses several of the common themes associated with steampunk literature of the past. Aside from the obvious airships, and brass goggles, Priest plays on mistaken identity, technological marvels, and the use of real historical figures, in the character of Princess Angeline, eldest daughter of Chief Seattle. The Seattle of Boneshaker is a very gritty, thick atmospheric feel. Cherie Priest has a clear vision of this alternate world, and I’m looking forward to reading future novels set in “The Clockwork Century” world.