Sunday, March 15, 2015

Jacaranda - Cherie Priest

According to Priest, Jacaranda is the final work she will write in her Clockwork Century setting. The series consists of five novels, one short story and, including this one, two novellas. I've had great fun with the previous entries in the series, even if they are not the most challenging works in the Steampunk genre, so I really wanted to read this one as well. Like the previous novella in the series, this one was published by Subterranean Press and like pretty much everything they publish, it is a beautiful little book. Great attention has been paid to the design and artwork. Subterranean books are not cheap but they always make sure you know that you paid for quality. The number of hardcovers is very limited so if you want one, better be fast.

On an island off the coast of Texas a hotel built with the finest technology the late nineteenth century has been making a name for itself. The place is thought to be haunted. Two dozen people have already died under mysterious circumstances. The authorities can't be bothered to investigate the deaths anymore and so an unlikely crew of a nun, a Texas ranger and a Mexican priest gathers at the hotel to investigate. As a hurricane barrels down on them, the terrible truth about the Jacaranda Hotel slowly reveals itself to them.

Jacaranda is set in the Clockwork Century but it is only very loosely tied to the rest of the stories. There is a reference to the rotters, the zombie-like victims of an addictive substance introduced in opening novel  Boneshaker, a few references to the alternate version of the American civil war the series covers and a reference to one of the major characters on Ganymede, the third novel in the series. That is all there is to be found of the Clockwork Century really. With a few minor bits of rewriting the whole thing could have been completely separated from the Clockworld universe. As a consequence, it can be read independently without missing much of what is going on. Jacaranda is not a novella meant to close of any dangling threads or answer any remaining questions. The climax of the series is clearly the final novel Fiddlehead.

In essence, Jacaranda is a haunted house story. The plot is not all that original and so the success of the story depends on the execution. Such stories need a certain atmosphere, a buildup of tension at just the right place, revelations at the right time. Priest realized this and paced her story accordingly. Where her first Clockwork Century novella Clementine felt constrained by the need to keep the word count under a certain number (it was intended for Subterranean but for contractual reasons Priest would have had to offer it to Tor first if it got above a certain word count), this one feels about right in length. In fact, take out a few of the plentiful descriptions of a storm approaching and it might even have been a bit shorter.

Atmosphere is important to the story though, Priest uses the approaching hurricane to ramp up the tension. The gradually darkening sky, the preparation for the storm, the subconscious nervousness caused by a rapidly dropping air pressure and the ever prescient threat of the hotel all  add to the sense of dread in the story. People die in it of course, but there is no need for buckets of blood or dozens of bodies. Like in a good horror movie, what you don't see is scarier than what is explicitly shown. It will not surprise the reader that in classic horror tradition, the climax of the story coincides with the climax of the hurricane.

Priest uses another element in her story pops up often in horror movies: guilt. Who gets to die and who is involved in the story in the first place is decided by often peculiar notions on who is deemed guilty and who is considered innocent and free of sin. The visitors of the hotel all bear the burden of guilt until it is too late. While none of them can actually be touched by the law of morals, each of them has broken a vow or a promise that weighs on their conscience. It is what draws them in an keeps them from running. At some level, the guilty want to be punished and the hotel is ready to extract a kind of justice from them. I guess guilt is not a surprising theme in a story where two of the main characters are Catholics who dedicated their lives to god. Especially later on in the novella, this biblical view on sin and guilt becomes more important. I can't say that was my favourite part of the story.

I must admit that this book was not quite what I was hoping for. It certainly doesn't deliver what I read the Clockwork Century books for. The hotel has  few gadgets but they are not important to the story, nor is the alternative history Priest has laid out. Haunted house stories are not really my thing either. They tend to be so stuck in horror clich├ęs that they rarely make for challenging or interesting reading. Putting my personal preferences aside for the moment, I do see a story that is well executed. Some readers may not be entirely convinced by the climax but it worked well enough for me. Jacaranda was entertaining reading, but as a postscript to the Clockwork Century, it is essentially unnecessary. Read it if you enjoy a good haunted house story or if you can't stand to leave a series unfinished. If those two don't apply to you, there are more interesting book out there.

Book Details
Title: Jacaranda
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 181
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-684-7
First published: 2015

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