Saturday, January 11, 2014

Fiddlehead - Cherie Priest

Fiddlehead is the fifth book in Priest's Clockwork Century series, published by Tor, that started with the well received Boneshaker in 2009. There is a sixth volume of novella length that has been published by Subterranean. Priest has written the novels in such a way that they are understandable if you haven't read all of them but with references to just about all of the previous five volumes, you definitely get more out of it if you have. For the moment Fiddlehead is the last book in the series. Priest doesn't rule out returning to the Clockwork Century but the main conflict in the books is resolved in this volume. It's a fitting conclusion to the series, bringing together a number of things set into motion in previous volumes.

Dr. Gideon Bardsley is an escaped slave with a ravenous intellect. After his escapes has made his name in academia and is now working on a primitive computer of his own design nicknamed Fiddlehead. His ultimate goal is the find an answer to the question of how to end the American civil war, which has been exhausting the Union and Confederation for almost two decades. Not everybody wants the war to end however. Bardsley is nearly killed in an attempt to destroy the machine. He manages to get away with a partial print of the solution Fiddlehead has come up with. Much to his surprise, according to the machine neither side will win the war if they keep ignoring the greater treat that looms over the continent. He turns to his patron for help. The crippled Abraham Lincoln calls on his security staff to keep Bardsley safe and hires Pinkerton agent and former southern spy Maria "Belle" Boyd to help them stop a catastrophe from happening.

The series as a whole is not short on historical characters but in this novel, two of them play an important role. I've already mentioned Abraham Lincoln, who, in this time line,  barely survived the 1865 assassination attempt and is now bound to a (properly Steampunked) wheelchair. The other is Ulysses S. Grant, former general and now president of the Union, his term being stretched far beyond any president before him because of the war. Priest mentions what happened to Andrew Johnson somewhere in the book but that detail escapes me at the moment. Lincoln is portrayed as a quiet, intelligent man. Grant is a alcoholic and a man more suited for the battlefield than the White House. I suppose those with a bit more intimate knowledge of American history will recognize more of the details. Priest has deviated so far from history as we know it at this point that I can't really say anything sensible on how much history is in them. I did find it surprising they got as much attention as they have in the novel though.

Boyd is one of the main characters in Clementine and she plays quite an important role in the story. Where Bardsley is mostly pinned down at Lincoln's estate, she travels the war torn nation, trying to undo the plot of Katherine Haymes, owner of the largest arms manufacturer in the south and a woman woman who feels the war should continue as long as possible. Where Boyd is our kick-ass heroine, Haymes is a woman without a conscience and the evil nemesis in this book. I enjoyed Boyd's pragmatism a lot in this novel. She is very aware of how society sees women and how to exploit that to her advantage. Priest manages to get more out of her than in Clementine where she clearly struggled to keep the wordcount down.

Haymes on the other hand didn't work quite as well. Where Boyd is a point of view character, we mostly get to see Haymes through the eyes of Grant, who has, to put it mildly, conservative views on the role of women in politics or business. He dislikes her just because of that. Haymes is also guilty of what can only be described as a war crime, testing a new weapon on Union prisoners of war. The rumors about this atrocity have preceded her and it clashes with Grant's ideas on a fair fight. Grant's wife points out his prejudices to him but despite that, Haymes still comes off as pure evil. A little more ambiguity would have been much more in line with wat characters like Boyd, Mercy Lynch (the main character in Dreadnought)  and Sally Tompkins experience in the way of sexism and how to overcome it. Just a hint of redeeming quality might have done is. In a series that has quite a few rounded female characters Haynes' performance is jarring.

Priest tries to bring all the clues of the epidemic brewing in the west together in this novel. That means there are quite a lot of references to other books. The aforementioned Mercy Lynch pops up quite a lot when the letters she has sent east detailing her research on the effects of the gas that has destroyed Seattle fall into Boyd's hands. One of the other passengers of the ill-fated Dreadnought also shows up in the final of the novel and there is an appearance of Captain Croggon Beauregard Hainey, one of the main characters in Clementine. In the end, it is in Boyd that all this information comes together and that she is able to act to prevent disaster. The way Priest handles links to previous books without making them a must read,  something she does throughout the series, is one of the things that make it stand out. Structurally this series is very clever and even in the book that concludes the series, she manages not to burden it with too much back story.

I guess there are quite a few things one could say on the historical accuracy of this series or the way is skirts the issue of slavery that hangs over the Civil War. The Clockwork Century doesn't aim to go into detail about that. In the end it is mostly an adventure, their attraction is the strange setting, the machines that almost seem to have a character of their own, the walking dead that haunt the city of Seattle and the gunfights and airship battles that inevitably ensue. Priest provides plenty of that. I must admit I liked these books more for the strange machines and vivid settings than the alternative history. Priest's extensive tinkering with history in favour of a single point of divergence probably makes it a bit less interesting for the real history buffs. They are great fun to read however and Fiddlehead is a fitting conclusion to the series. I'm glad I've been on board for the entire journey and if Priest does decide to return to this alternative history I'm definitely putting it on my to read list.

Book Details
Title: Fiddlehead
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 366
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3407-7
First published: 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment