Clementine by Cherie Priest
Clementine by Cherie Priest (Subterranean Press, 2010) represents the second volume in The Clockwork Century following on from Boneshaker. This is what one can only describe as a real rip-roaring adventure novel. It takes everything that was wonderful about the “Boys’ Own” school of writing, filters it through what we now call steampunk, and emerges with a genuinely exciting chase across an alternate history version of America as it experiences a different version of the Civil War. This time, our heroine is Maria Isabella Boyd. She’s a devastating combination of Mata Hari and Annie Oakley. Initially employed by the Confederacy as a spy, she finds herself a little too well-known and so out of work. After a short period on the stage, she’s recruited by Pinkerton and immediately despatched to ensure a cargo being carried by the airship Clementine, gets where it’s supposed to be going without any major mishap befalling it.
The potential mishap’s name is Captain Croggon Hainey. He was the proud captain of the Free Crow — a ship he’d stolen fair and square and, after considerable modification, had run on the free enterprise market with considerable success. Unfortunately, he’s become the victim of a theft. His beautiful ship has been appropriated and is now renamed Clementine. It’s sailing off to the other side of the country with Hainey in hot pursuit. So there we have the plot. Our outraged and implacable Captain in pursuit of his purloined ship must be forestalled by a gun-toting ex-spy masquerading as a private detective. Except it proves not quite so simple for either party. You see, despite being let go by the South, our heroine still has some loyalties to the cause. When she discovers the Clementine is being used to transport the final part of a new secret weapon which, when completed, will enable the Yankees to literally wipe Southern cities off the map, an alliance with Captain Hainey may be the best way of preventing military disaster. Against this must be balanced the reality that, if she survives, it will undoubtedly mean she loses her new job with Pinkerton’s. Forming this alliance and maintaining the relevant degree of mutual trust represents the major dynamic of the second half of the book as both individuals discuss options and convince each other of their honorable intentions.
On the way, we meet up with Edwin and Dr Archibald Smeeks from “Tanglefoot” a short story published online by Subterranean Press, and develop a clear understanding of why “Belle” Boyd has managed to build up such a reputation for competence. All this is carried off with the minimum of fuss and bother. Crossing over the finishing line in a 200-page sprint, this book demonstrates the virtue in economy. Far too many books today are bloated with excess baggage that does little more than slow down the action and tire the wrists of older readers like myself with the additional weight. This tells us only what we need to know to get the story going and then keeps things very simple in the telling. It happily transports me back in time to my youth when the standard length of a book was 192 pages (for those of you who are technically minded, that’s six gathers). So, airships filled with hydrogen are the main focus of our attention. This means everyone must move very cautiously. From our own world’s experience, we remember the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 when the German passenger airship caught fire and was destroyed in New Jersey. Now imagine similar designs used for military transport and commercial purposes (including piracy). These are not machines one should treat with any lack of respect. It’s therefore interesting to watch the careful thought invested in the tactics of how to fly and, if necessary, fight in these death traps. Cherie Priest has done a good job with just a few brushstrokes, to create the necessary sense of dread in all who sail in these ships and who work from the ground in offering refuelling and maintenance facilities. Taken overall, Clementine is great fun and, despite the public’s appreciation of Boneshaker, a less pretentious and more enjoyable read.
The jacket artwork from Jon Foster is pleasingly muted.
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