Last year, Priest's novel Boneshaker (Tor, October 2009) took the Steampunk sub genre by storm. Her novel about an alternate history Seattle, poisoned by a mysterious gas and plagued by zombies was very well received and is one of the novels still in the race for the Hugo Award. With that kind of success more stories in this Clockwork Century setting were to be expected. Earlier this year Subterranean already published to story Tanglefoot online (it can be read here) and this month they added the novella Clementine to it. I understand that Priest has also sold a number of other Clockwork Century novels to Tor. Her second full length novel in this setting, Dreadnought, is expected in September.
Clementine is probably set shortly after the events in Boneshaker. It features a number of minor character form the novel but you do not need to read it to enjoy this book. Set in an alternate version of the US where the civil war has dragged on for two decades, both sides are looking for something that can break the stalemate and enable them to strike a decisive blow. Somehow the dirigible Free Crow of smuggler, pirate and sometimes bank robber Captain Croggon Beauregard Hainey is central to the plans of one of the parties. His honestly stolen ship is taken by a party colleagues, hastily renamed Clementine and taken east with unknown cargo. Hainey is about to let this theft go unpunished.
In the mean time southern spy Maria Isabelle Boyd, finds that the worst that could possibly happen to a spy has occurred. Her actions on behalf of the Confederacy has gained her a level of fame that makes further covert operations almost impossible. To make matters worse her loyalties are questioned. Cut loose from her employer, Boyd tries her luck in the north where the infamous Pinkerton National Detective Agency has offered her a job. Her first assignment is to make sure a certain dirigible arrives on schedule and delivers goods to a Sanatorium. It looks innocent but reading between the lines Boyd get the impression the cargo is deemed vital to the Union war effort. Will old loyalties prevail over pragmatism?
It's quite unusual to have works in the same setting published by two different publishers without getting into an argument with one of them. Tor seems to prefer books of novel length though, I don't think they've published anything recent that is under a hundred thousand words in quite a while. At 201 generously spaced pages Clementine is well below that although I would not be surprised if it pushes the word limit for novellas. That being said, it is quite a different creature than the novel Boneshaker. It has a higher density of action scenes, including some very interesting areal combat and a number of gunfights.
Priest picked a couple of very unlikely heroes for this tale. Hainey is an escaped slave and criminal who doesn't have any moral objections to blowing whoever happens to be in the way of him regaining his beloved dirigible away with an absurdly large gun named Rattler. He's wanted in both the Union and the Confederacy and he's very much aware of how that limits his manoeuvrability. Boyd on the other hand has been fiercely defending the cause of the Confederacy, a state that allows slavery, and seriously considers capturing Hainey and deliver him to her old employer to get back in their good graces. She is also not above shooting people if it means getting the job done. Neither of the main characters are suitable as role models to say the least. Personally I can appreciate a bit of moral ambiguity in a novel but some readers will no doubt be more comfortable with Brair and quest to get her son back.
Characters willing to do a little damage achieve their goals do make for an action-packed novel. Where in Boneshaker the dirigibles were mostly part of the scenery, we get to see quite a lot of them here. I must admit I fail to see the wisdom of a combination of steam engines and hydrogen filled balloons, or mounting them with guns for that matter. Predictably, large explosions are the result. On the whole I liked this more condensed version of the Clockwork Century better than Boneshaker though. The novel is a fine piece of writing but it does contain a fairly straightforward story. Perhaps not enough to justify the length of Boneshaker. Clementine is more tightly written. The pace is relentless but Priest does manage to flesh out the two main characters well enough to make them interesting.
Do not expect a very complex story when reading this. Clementine is a fast and exciting read. Something the whet the appetite before Dreadnought hits the shelves. Personally, I don't understand why Tor let this one pass. It is bound to appeal to readers who liked Boneshaker. Thankfully there are still publishers interested in work that doesn't conform to the big fat fantasy novel standards. Subterranean did a wonderful job on the cover art (by Jon Foster) and design as well. For those of you who have not been able to get your hands on a hardcover, I hear they are almost sold out, there will be a paperback edition sometime next year. Now or next year, if you do see it in a book store don't hesitate, Clementine is a very good read.
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Suterranean Press
First published: 2010