Clementine, the fifth book in Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century. An alternative history where the American civil war has raged for two decades and all manner of strange Steampunk contraptions are in use. I've read al the previous volumes and enjoyed each of them. They are not terrifically complex books but great fun to read. Each book is written to be self-contained and centrers on a different main character, it is not necessary to have read any of the previous volumes to enjoy this book. I do think you get a lot more out of it if you have however. Priest makes a lot of the important characters of previous novels reappear as secondary characters in this book.
Priest takes us back to the location of Boneshaker, the first novel in the series. Seattle is still walled off from the outside world to contain the toxic gas that is pouring liberally form a rupture in the earth. The main character Rector " Werck'em" Sherman grows up in an orphanage outside the walls. His parents were likely the victims of the original disaster that struck the city. Life doesn't seem to have too much in store for him and Rector finds himself in deep trouble when the nuns running the orphanage decide his has reached to age of eighteen. Turned out from the orphanage, addicted to the poisonous sap an with no means of sustaining himself or feeding his addiction, Rector decides to try his luck inside the walls of the city. He finds the place full of factions, on the verge of a gang war and in the clutches of a huge creature attacking anyone unwise enough to go out alone. He will have to adapt to this new environment fast if he is to survive in this most challenging of environments.
Addiction is an important theme in this book. Sap slowly kills and Rector is pretty close to the point of no return when we meet him. His cravings and withdrawal symptoms run through the entire narrative. Even though Rector has seen the devastating effects of the drugs he dealt himself at one time, he is still sorely tempted. At the end of the novel I like to believe he will stay clean but Priest left me doubting. Even is the drug is entirely fictional I think it is a pretty convincing depiction of substance abuse. Rector's self-destructive urges don't really endear me to him but it does underline the dreariness of his life and the bad hand it has dealt him. In a way, Rector embodies the problems of the city. Both are dependent on the very thing that destroys them.
The story of Seattle's split community is also pushed forward. The revenue from the sale of sap are vital to maintain the city, which can only be in habited at huge expense. The group who tries to get by more honestly is well aware of the fact that they wouldn't survive without the investment of the local drug lord in their infrastructure. It makes the whole community very morally ambiguous. I guess that suits the main character fine. Such display of wealth and a monopoly on the drug trade is sure to attract those who want a share of the pie without fully understanding the risks involved in running the operation. A conflict is inevitable and I very much liked the way in which Seattle's inhabitants pull together to deal with that threat.
It does lead to some interesting questions though. We see Mercy Lynch, the main character in Dreadnought doing research on sap and it's effects. She is very aware of the link between the rotters, the blight, the sap and war effort and if she succeeds in stopping the trade in sap, the concequences will be huge for Seattle as well as the rest of the nation. The overarching story in these novels is very far in the background but it is still there. I guess at some point Priest is going to tie all of those things up and somehow end this long-lasting conflict. As much as I am enjoying the fast and furious adventure stories that form the backbone of these novels, the alternative history intrigues me even more. Personally I wouldn't mind if it had been a bit more at the forefront.
On top of the alternate history, the troubles of Rector and the gang war that is about to erupt, there is the matter of the mysterious creature attacking people. Priest involved Princess Angeline in this story line, the oldest daughter of Chief Seattle, after which the city was named. She is a historical character and Priest makes her into quite a fearsome lady. On the one hand I liked this link with local history (I'm sure there are more but I must admit I am not that familiar with the region) but it was the one storyline that didn't really mesh in with the others. It was a good reminder that even in those dark days, money and power aren't all there is to life though.
Priest delivered another strong volume in the Clockwork Century series. Like the previous volumes The Inexplicables is a fast, fun read. People who loved the previous books will want to pick up this one. Personally I get the feeling that Priest is steadily working towards a resolution of the overarching story but I don't think we'll see it in the next novel Fiddlehead, which is scheduled for release in November 2013 and will have Belle Boyd as the main character. Readers who have read Clementine will remember Belle for sure. I'm sure Fiddlehead will be on my to read list late this year. This is one series I mean to keep up with.
Title: The Inexplicables
Author: Cherie Priest
First published: 2012