Last year Cherie Priest had a big hit with her zombie steampunk novel Boneshaker. It got her award nominations and a deal for several more books in this Clockwork Century setting. Earlier this year the novella, or short novel, Clementine appeared from Subterranean and now Tor has released the second full novel in the series, Dreadnought. Given the success of the previous part, expectations were high. I guess this book is going to get it's share of mixed reviews. Although the setting is the same, Dreadnought is not a direct sequel, some of the characters from Boneshaker make a brief appearance but most of the novel is focussed on a new main character. I guess it can be read independently of the others but you probably get more out of it if you have read Boneshaker at least. It's also quite a different story, with the machine the book is named after, very prominent in the tale. I enjoyed Boneshaker a lot but I still think Dreadnought is the better book.
Vinita 'Mercy' Lynch is a nurse in one of the hospitals where the south tries to patch up its victims from the civil war battlefields. A civil war that has raged for two decades now, with no end in sight. Mercy's husband is a young man from across the border, they'd only been married for a few months when he went north to fight for the Republican side. Now, almost two years later, news arrived that he has died, not at the front line but in one of the prisoner of war camps. That is not the only shock that week that Mercy has to endure. A telegram arrives from the west coast. One sheriff Wilkes sends her a message that her father is seriously hurt and that his life is in danger. He has asked her to come see him in Seattle.
Mercy has not seen her father since she was a little girl and she isn't in the least tempted to undertake the long and dangerous journey to see a man who abandoned her. After talking to one of her patients she changes her mind though. It may be the last chance she'll get after all. Mercy resigns her position and with her savings and severance pay she buys tickets for the first leg of her journey. A trip by dirigible to Chattanooga, far enough from the front lines to be uneventful according to the captain. As it turns out, the war is quite a bit closer than Mercy would like. And her journey is just beginning.
In a way this book is a bit more like Clementine than Boneshaker. In Boneshaker we stayed in and around Seattle, where the war was far away and people mostly worried about their own unusual circumstances. Clementine shows us some more of the US in this alternate 19th century but due to the word limit Priest does not really flesh it out as well as she might have. In Dreadnought she has some more space to show us what is going on in the east. Priest's series is not a traditional alternate history. As far as I know there is no clear point of divergence, the author more or less rearranges some events. Some of the changes include a still independent Texas (informally allied with the Confederacy) and the mentioning of Diesel engines a decade before Rudolf Diesel patented his design. Another interesting detail is the abolition of slavery in most of the southern states during the 1870s. The history as Priest paints it does not strike me as the most realistic scenario, sorting out the differences with our history is still interesting. I suspect that people who know a bit more about the American Civil War era will get even more out of it.
Where Boneshaker had a few sections where the pace of the story dropped a bit, the pace is absolutely unrelenting in this novel. The story unfolds with the speed the Dreadnought itself (it is a nasty piece of war machinery on rails by the way). Once Mercy has boarded, she is in for the ride of her life. Travelling across the continent we get a much better view of the bigger picture, events that are only distant rumour in Boneshaker. The plot is a bit more complex than in the previous novel, with several developments in various parts of North America converging. Boneshaker undeniably has an emotionally powerful plot, with a mother trying to rescue her son, but I have to admit that the story in Dreadnought is more to my taste.
Both earlier tales in the Clockwork Century setting had strong female main characters and Dreadnought follows this example. Mercy is a bit younger than Briar and Maria but like the other two ladies she is definitely the no nonsense type. She does not fear the sight of blood or gunpowder to put it mildly and she has a very interesting bedside manner. One particularly fine example of that is shown in the scene where Mercy helps out at a Salvation Army hospital in exchange for a bed for the night. The contrast with the Salvation Army nurse couldn't be greater. There is one thing about her character that made me wonder though, she hardly takes any time at all to grieve. The late husband is perhaps a bit too much a device to explain why Mercy is out on her own in a time when decent ladies didn't go out unescorted.
One of the few things I didn't like about this book is the way Priest deals with racism. I think Priest is trying a little to hard to keep the racism of the time out of her books. It crops up a number of times but certainly not in the fashion one would expect. Even with slavery abolished, it was so ingrained in society that being black or Chinese or native American, was not a comfortable position to be in. When Priest refers to it, it is always at a distance. Making it a bit more prominent would not have hurt this novel.
Following up on such a successful first book is always challenging. I think Priest delivered an even stronger novel with Dreadnought. It combines the setting, steampunk elements and zombies that made the first novel such a fun read but also manages to expand the reader's view of her alternate history. It's one of those book that will keep you reading just because the excitement of the story never lets up. I liked Boneshaker a lot, I absolutely loved Dreadnought. I can't wait for the next Clockwork Century novel, Ganymede, which unfortunately for me, is not expected until the fall of 2011.
Author: Cherie Priest
First published: 2010