Dreadnought by Cherie Priest
Well, as Dreadnought (The Clockwork Century Volume 3) follows Boneshaker and Clementine, we are in the land of sequels, which are always tricky things to write. You can just carry on with the same cast of characters in a new situation, you can follow on in time but with new people to give a different perspective of the initial situation, or you can move backward or forward in time. In this case, Cherie Priest has gone for the middle course, introducing a new heroine with the task of crossing the country to get to Seattle where she can join up with the original crew. This provides a wonderful opportunity to fill in the background to this alternate history version of the Civil War.
When you are planning a novel based on some degree of historical fact, there’s always a need for research. The more the author learns, the greater the problem of integrating mere exposition into the narrative. Not enough background colour and the recreation of the era lacks credibility. Too many factual contributions and it slows down the action without adding significantly to its development. The first section of this novel almost falls on the wrong side of the line. It’s obviously necessary to introduce our heroine and to establish her credibility as a nurse with enough competence to learn from the surgeons she assists. She must also have a reason to cross the country, which those who have read the first will know is inevitable as soon as we learn she’s related to Jeremiah Swakhammer. The only other point of interest is mention of the “wheezers” which is the first sign that Cherie Priest is going to play the game properly. The section on the river is also close to the line on irrelevant detail.
Sometimes, authors lack the self-discipline to think through the detail of their creation and follow the logic of what has gone before. In this case, I’m pleased to report a fine effort with only two minor blemishes which we can pass over with a mere mention.
Let’s start with all the good stuff. Once you have an apparently inexhaustible supply of a gas that can be processed into a drug, it’s inevitable it will be distributed to anyone willing to pay. Given that production may have been disrupted in Seattle itself, supplies of the raw gas will have to be transported across country to other processors. With airships not the most reliable of transport systems, accidents can and will happen. We should also remember the effect of the untreated gas on humans who inhale it. Such properties would also interest governments if this could be militarised. The problem would be how you might control the outcome of deployment. In theory, the fact that the gas is heavier than air would make it easy to deliver from higher to lower ground. Unfortunately, gas masks and covering the skin are effective countermeasures. And, should the wind direction change, the gas could blow back. And then what would you do with all the remaining undead once they had consumed their own troops? Nice questions we could play around with.
It’s good to see a serious demonstration of the problems when you try using hydrogen to give lift in machines close to a war zone. The issues of race are well handled, looking with circumspection at how society treats the African Americans. I also like the idea of parcelling large tracts of land to the Chinese immigrants as an inducement for them to enlist. When you are struggling for manpower in an overlong Civil War, you will take whoever can be persuaded to carry a weapon. The development of dual power systems for larger pieces of machinery is interesting and borrowing the idea of walking fighting machines from H. G. Wells is a good joke. The smaller motorised pursuit vehicles are neat and not overused. So, all things considered, we have everything set up for an exciting run across the front line of the fighting, followed by an extended journey by train.
I am, however, puzzled by how the Dreadnought can come so close to the battlefield to release the walker. There must be a spur line. . . But then I struggle to understand the rules for the use of the track. It seems the engines from opposing states can move on both sides of the battlefield. Perhaps there’s a formal agreement that no-one will dynamite the track leaving both sides free to use whichever lines happen to be free at the time for military or civilian purposes. The second slight problem is one of these male uncertainties. I am all for novels that promote the idea of female empowerment. Indeed, given the faltering of the feminist movement, there’s a real need to provide positive role models for modern women. In this book, we have a very active nurse who can run around a battlefield, shoot and, if necessary, swarm up and down ladders to get inside train carriages. So here’s the question? Were women of the day not expected to wear corsets under these cumbersome long dresses? While not suggesting that every lady would be tight-lacing and so restricting her ability to breathe let alone move, how “rational” were the dresses, undergarments and shoes worn by nurses? As I say, these are minor problems.
Overall, Dreadnought is far more successful than Boneshaker. Although the basic situation of having to defend a train against attack is a well-worn trope, it manages to generate a more dynamic narrative. The first story is rather static with search and survival being the order of the day. The whole is an exploration of a closed area. It’s not without tension but, once you know this is a mother tracking down her wayward son, you know it’s going to turn out well. This novel gives you a gentle introduction to triage on and off the battlefield, and then a chase after you get everyone on the train. There are the external threats, the possibility of spies, and the presence of representatives from different governments which makes for political complexity. Further, there’s always the uncertainty of what might come boiling out of the end carriage. Finally, more time is taken to encourage us to care about the background characters. Even little old ladies can turn out to have some useful skills.
You could read this as a stand-alone and read Boneshaker as a prequel. But, as with all these things, it’s better if you read them in order. Taking everything into consideration, I strongly recommend Dreadnought. It’s more dominantly steampunkish in the SFnal sense with an improving alternate history developing.
Jacket art by Jon Foster who has some interesting artwork in his portfolio.
For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
Those Who Went Remain There Still
Dreadnought won the Endeavor Award, 2011