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Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest

December 8, 2013 Leave a comment

Fiddlehead-The-Clockwork-Century--330949-85cd313e3798cda3bd59

Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest (Tor, 2013) is the sixth and supposedly final book in The Clockwork Century series. The fact this is intended as the final book is both a strength and a weakness. The positive virtue comes from the need to resolve as many of the different threads that have been running through the series as possible. To do this, we finally get upstairs to the place where the major players have been manipulating events. The problem with the series to date has been we never got to see the big picture. We were always trapped down in particular events without a proper context. This was a growing frustration. Hence we can be relieved it’s all over. The weakness is that no groundwork has been laid for the resolution of this alternate history Civil War. There have been five books showing us the scale of the growing problem and all this is going to be resolved in one book? It’s a stretch, particularly if the final book is to be a satisfying steampunk adventure story in its own right.

So how does it actually play out? Well, from the off, we’re introduced to the ultimate calculating machine. It’s the titular Fiddlehead which has been constructed by Gideon Bardsley, a brilliant ex-slave who’s managed to convince Abraham Lincoln, disabled after the attack at the Ford Theater, he can get all the answers needed to stop the war and reunite the country. Not surprisingly, there’s a hawkish faction that wants the war to continue for its own profit. This gives us the dynamic for the plot. Abraham Lincoln joins forces with President Grant and sends out agents to investigate what’s actually happening and, wherever possible, to frustrate events likely to perpetuate the armed struggle. At the sharp end, we have the return of Maria Boyd, southern spy, and Henry Epperson of the US Marshals Service. They combine forces and collect the necessary information to confirm what Fiddlehead has predicted. Then it’s a chase to prevent the proposed shock and awe moment in this Civil War scenario. Yes, just as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were designed to undermine the confidence of the Japanese, Katharine Haymes is pushing the North to use an explosive device to release the gas against civilian targets. She claims this will demoralise the South and produce a surrender. In reality, she believes the South and the watching world will be outraged the North has attacked an unarmed population centre and will rally to the cause. Since she runs an armaments conglomerate, this reinvigorated conflict will lead to even greater profits with sales to both sides in the immediate conflict and to other nations who join in the fight.

Cherrie Priest

Cherrie Priest

The politics is not unrealistic but it’s kept at a superficial level because, to be honest, the book is not long enough to produce a convincing context while maintaining an adventure pace. The fan base for this series expects to see a strong woman character fight her way across America to save the world (if the zombie plague is not contained, the world will soon be eaten up). And herein lies the unfortunate compromise that prevents the book from being satisfying. If we ignore the gunplay, the airship dogfighting and the occasional explosion, we have only a glimpse of one side of the Civil War. Wars have their own momentum but, ultimately, it comes down to the few people who hold positions of power on both sides to agree terms for peace. We meet up with President Grant and Abe Lincoln who send a message suggesting talks to the other side. That’s all we see. There’s no direct contact shown to discuss a truce. All we get is an announcement at the end of the book. It seems everyone just sees sense after Boyd and Epperson prevent the gas attack on the South.

There are also timeline problems as the events in the North are supposed to parallel the movement of the agents around the border areas and the South. In particular, we have a night-long siege at Lincoln’s home which keeps going in alternate chapters. This is an unnecessarily long night. There’s no reason why we cannot follow Boyd and Epperson in their campaign and have more political cross-border efforts to stop the war. The climax can therefore come with the physical attack on the Lincoln home as things our agents get closer to their target in the South. That way, it can all be tied up and lead into a peace conference to settle terms for a joint defence against the zombies. In many ways, Fiddlehead is a success in resolving matters but, after the catastrophe that was The Inexplicables, it may just be we’re all relieved it’s all over (for now).

 

For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Boneshaker
Clementine
Dreadnought
Fathom
Ganymede
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
The Inexplicables
Those Who Went Remain There Still

The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest

Inexplicables

The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest (The Clockwork Century Volume 5) demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of a longer running series. When it’s new, everyone can be genuinely excited by the novelty of the ideas and the loving craft that has gone into realising those ideas on paper. Those who follow the genre will know Boneshaker was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. This is no mean achievement. It signals a book that has striven to reach the pinnacles and only just fallen short. I think there were three reasons for its success in 2009. The first was the resurgence of steampunk in the oughties had not produced the greatest of works. This novel had a depth of invention that none of the others had achieved. The mechanics of survival in the gas-infected Seattle were beautifully worked out. Add in the claustrophobic atmosphere and the flesh-eating rotters, and you had a winner. The next three books see the author ringing the changes to keep the ideas fresh. Although there was some overlap in the characters, each novel or novella featured a different set of technological innovation. Despite this braveness in continually expanding the extent of the alternate history and looking in more detail at developments in the dirigibles, steam-power generally and submarines, I had the sense the series was slowly running out of steam. This is confirmed by the latest book’s return to Seattle. I think this was a fundamental mistake.

Cherie Priest with the backing of flowers

Cherie Priest with the backing of flowers

Assessing the “big picture”, there were fascinating possibilities in moving up to proper authorial omniscience and looking squarely at the broader conflict between the Northern and Southern states with Texas almost neutral. We’ve only viewed this version of the Civil War tangentially. There have been mere glimpses of the politics of the conflict and of the various attempts to resolve the core disputes and produce peace. Yet instead of helping us understand the context for this war, we revert to a Young Adult format rerun of Seattle with tedious results. This time, young Rector Sherman reaches his eighteenth birthday and gets thrown out of the orphanage. Driven by guilt that he might have been responsible for the death of Zeke, he decides to enter the city and try to lay the ghost. It should be said the boy is a fairly hopeless sap addict and not wholly rational when he takes this decision. But, as is always the case with books like this, once the primary protagonist has committed himself to the roll of the dice, you have to go with it.

Thereafter, we have all the faults of a YA approach holding this book back plus a genuinely silly introduction. Dealing with the latter first, about a third of the way through the book, I decided there must be a zoo within the walls or just outside, and one or more orangutans had escaped and entered the city. Boy was I barking up the wrong tree! You see I’d thought the essence of steampunk was some degree of realism and not outright fantasy horror. Even the author’s decision might have been defensible if it had been scary. But when Captain Cly can restrain it. . . Even allowing for the gas weakening this usually unstoppable force of nature, this plot element is a non-starter except in a YA novel that’s pulling its punches. Now add in one of the boys can sooth the savage beast. Well that’s what you get when you mix youngsters with the supernatural. They’re all so dim, wandering around the place as if they were invulnerable. After all, the rotters have either been carefully shepherded from the city or pulled to pieces by the newcomer(s). That reduces the danger factor to an effective zero level. So they can do their Famous Five freelance crime-solving act with only a few relatively ineffective adult drug dealers to worry about. It’s a sadly inadequate contribution to a reasonably entertaining series. Even the steampunk element is glossed over. Rather than repeat all the descriptions from the earlier Boneshaker, we’re given a whistle-stop tour of underground and how to get around safely.

So no matter how innovative and successful the first two books in this series, this is one to avoid unless you are reading as a committed fan. I hate to say it but The Inexplicables is terrible.

 

For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Boneshaker
Clementine
Dreadnought
Fathom
Fiddlehead
Ganymede
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
Those Who Went Remain There Still

Fathom by Cherie Priest

September 10, 2012 Leave a comment

Fathom by Cherie Priest (Tor, 2008) is a fantasy that, in all aspects of the word, celebrates the importance of family. Not necessarily emphasising the importance of love, you understand. Indeed, there’s an overarching sense that love is a human weakness. But rather identifying a powerful form of selfish loyalty based on kinship and a shared ancestry. Let’s start with the proposition that a mother is the creator of her children. In much the same way that a collector may fiercely defend treasured items from the ravages of time and other perils, so a mother will always seek to defend her children. But she will not necessarily feel obliged to sacrifice herself in a futile attempt to save those children. When all is said and done, a fertile mother can always create more children. Equally, the love of her children does not translate into a love for the children of others. They command no duty of protection. Indeed, if they are in the way, they will be sacrificed to achieve the mother’s greater purpose.

At an elemental level, the Earth is in balance. Moving air can fan the flames but, in sufficient quantity, water can suppress fire and stone can contain it. So the centre of the Earth is magma, a molten fluid that melts stone because of the pressure. As we move closer to the surface, the mantle is formed as the pressure drops and the fire cools. Should magma break through the mantle and emerge on to the surface as lava, heat will dissipate. The speed of heat loss will depend on the ambient temperature if on land, or the volume of water surrounding it. But the reality is that, sooner or later, the lava cools, reverts to a solid form, and the integrity of the mantle is restored. Over time, moving water will wear down the stone to sculpt the land into valleys and bore underground passages. There will be evaporation and precipitation. Through such processes and over millions of years, Earth has been in balance and, because of that stability, life has been able to develop. At first, the life forms were the product of the forces in balance. Think of them as spirits of the air, water, fire and earth. Some like Leviathan were more powerful. Death, until banished, was all-powerful. Then, through evolution, came the animals and, eventually, the arrogant humans who deceive themselves into believing they have power but, in relative terms, they are cannon fodder to be killed off by tornadoes, floods, eruptions, earthquakes and other catastrophic phenomena. I suppose this explains why we humans have so consistently invented gods based on the different ways in which the natural world can kill us. Later, when we realised our place in the universe, it’s been open to people like H P Lovecraft and others to expand the mythology in cosmic terms.

Cherrie Priest before she was overtaken by steampunk

Fathom sees the female side of the usual reproductive cycle in the ascendancy as the major spirit of water creates two children for herself, i.e. elevates two humans as her avatars on the land. The ultimate aim is to wake Leviathan which is bad news for the humans since this will most likely cause the end of balance and the destruction of the Earth. Opposing her is another young woman who’s been uplifted to superpowers. On the way, a young fireman called Sam (deliberate reference to fire in view) is caught up in the action, but he’s only human and so slows everyone else down. When in a bind, it always comes down to the women to sort out the dispute and decide the winners and losers. Indeed, almost all the male figures in this book either die or stay neutral which is perhaps as it should be in a book written by a woman. It makes a refreshing change to get away from fantasy in which male wizards battle it out with the help of hobbits, dwarves, elves and the occasional human male (with the occasional female as chaste love interest until the fighting is over). If women do appear in male fantasies, they tend to be the embodiment of evil and characterised as witches, enchantresses, harpies, and other diabolical beings. In Fathom, the spirit of water is maternal in the sense described in the first paragraph and is not really evil at all. She simply has a different set of values to humans and sees their survival as irrelevant in her quest to reunite with Leviathan.

Taking the overview, Fathom is superior fantasy, full of inventiveness and a deft use of atmosphere. Reading it, I’m rather saddened Cherie Priest should later have gone on to write ordinary urban fantasy. There’s such great promise here for an individual voice to say something interesting about the human condition, all surrendered as she finds her market in increasingly tame steampunk adventures and generic stories about ass-kicking females saving the cities if not the planet. I suppose the thoughtful, creative material doesn’t sell in sufficient numbers to support a modern writer — a sad reflection on the buying habits of those who claim to enjoy fantasy.

For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Boneshaker
Clementine
Dreadnought
Fathom
Fiddlehead
Ganymede
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
The Inexplicables
Those Who Went Remain There Still

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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.

Cherie Priest acting as lagging for some Victorian pipes

 

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)
Boneshaker
Clementine
Dreadnought
Fathom
Fiddlehead
Ganymede
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
The Inexplicables
Those Who Went Remain There Still

Those Who Went Remain There Still by Cherie Priest

Those Who Went Remain There Still by Cherie Priest (Subterranean Press, 2008) follows in the noble tradition of the “thing” in the woods or cave that predates (in both senses, i.e. it’s been there since before time began — storywise if not prehistory — and it eats unsuspecting passers-by or spelunkers — a snack on a rope for those waiting on the bottom of the cleft. These stories have a mythological base, but first began to emerge into the modern light of day through the work of Algernon Blackwood and other early horror writers. The idea is a simple one. When you can only catch glimpses of the “thing” through the trees or just outside the light cast by your torch or lamp, the vagueness allows the reader’s mind to fill in the gaps with the features we find the most disturbing. Sometimes, this morphs into the variations on the idea of the Hollow Earth which has entire ecosystems underground, usually populated with hostile hominids waiting to engage in a little cross-species cannibalism. A good modern example of this phenomenon is The Descent by Jeff Long. Others go into Cosmic Horror in the Lovecraftian Mythos mode with a classic Weird West example being “The Valley of the Lost” by Robert E Howard where a demonic serpent sleeping in a Texan cave awakes and gives away a few secrets of the universe and, more recently, The Croning by Laird Barron in which the caves themselves are supernaturally linked to each other both on Earth and elsewhere.

Cherie Priest showing off a nice set of pipes

 

Like Robert E Howard, Cherie Priest stays more on the supernatural than science fiction side of the line with her “thing” which first shows up when Daniel Boone leads a crew of men to blaze the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian Mountains. As its inspiration, the story incorporates the inscription supposedly carved into a tree by the heroic Boone and now preserved for posterity in Washington County, Tennessee. Except, of course, this fictional version of Boone does not meet a bear. In fact, it’s rather more in the spirit of Ithaqua as a nocturnal Wind-Walker, i.e. it flies. This makes it difficult to see in a night sky and difficult to fight because, once you fire off an old musket, the “thing” can swoop down and literally pick up the marksman in its claws before he can reload. Anyway, Boone and a young sidekick called Little Heaster finally manage to damage the “thing” sufficiently to get it on the ground and, when all the remaining men rally round, they think they have killed it and throw the body in a cave. Ah, little do they know, it takes a lot to kill “things” of this ilk and it later turns out this was a pregnant “thing” whose offspring adapt well to life in the cave system.

 

We now come forward from 1775 to 1899 and find two feuding clans living in the same area of Tennessee. They are all interrelated — cousins, for the most part — and, as is always the way in stories of this type, they prefer to shoot first and ask questions later. Out of self-preservation, they keep out of each other’s way as much as possible. So when circumstances beyond their control dictate six men descend into the cave, three from each side of the feud are selected. That way, there will be no unfair advantage to either faction. They have an equal chance of finding the “treasure” and making it back to the surface. Needless to say, there’s a considerable lack of credibility to all this. I suppose the “thing” as a Mummy needs to eat such a lot to keep her uterine flock in full health and vigor. But after being thrown into the cave, there are no local stories suggesting a predator is at work. Although our heroes find a big pile of bones, it’s not at all clear where the food has come from. Except, of course, local people seem to have an odd habit of wandering off. Unfortunately, it’s clear not all these folk end up dead in the cave. So it’s baffling how these creatures survive for more than one-hundred years. You would think they would be flying out of the cave every night like bats and stripping the county of anything walking around with meat on the bones. That said, the actual delivery of the story manages the changing points of view well and there’s a good pace to the twin narrative tracks. Since all supernatural fiction requires a suspension of disbelief, Those Who Went Remain There Still is one of the better examples of a “thing” story. It also covers both options by having sequences in the woods and in the cave. Finally, this is yet another particularly pleasing physical book from Subterranean with excellent internal illustrations from Mark Geyer. Overall, it’s a very enjoyable read.

 

For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Boneshaker
Clementine
Dreadnought
Fathom
Fiddlehead
Ganymede
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
The Inexplicables
Those Who Went Remain There Still

Ganymede by Cherie Priest

December 19, 2011 2 comments

Ganymede by Cherie Priest continues the Clockwork Century series, this time bringing us a steampunkish submarine. Except, it’s rather more real than fictional. To understand why this is a problem, we need to go back to Jules Verne who launched the Nautilus and several hundred different versions of submersible craft when he published Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870. That’s the problem with a very good idea. It spawns copies so, for a while, the literature we might loosely call science fiction or fantasy had every manner of different underwater machine floating around causing mayhem. This explosion of discussion was also useful because it helped a naïve public explore issues of morality in warfare. Up to this point, war had theoretically been conducted according to rules of honour. So, you would announce your presence, muster your forces in plain view and then engage. Combatants would always be proud of any wounds they received on the front or sides of their body, and be deeply ashamed of any wounds on the back which might suggest they had been running away from the field of battle. Underwater craft that could sneak up on their enemies without being seen were thought dishonourable ways of fighting. Here was the British navy with vast dreadnoughts commanding the waves. The idea some pipsqueak little boat could attach a mine to the side of one of our battleships and sink them without warning was “beyond the pale”. Only uncivilised folk would fight using such subterfuge — this despite Carl von Clausewitz suggesting wars were always potentially chaotic affairs in which anything might happen. However, by the time we get to the 1930s, real-world engineers have almost perfected the submarine and so there was little point in continuing to treat them as science fiction or fantasy — they rarely appear in the “Gernsback” years and later. Indeed, with only one or two notable exceptions like The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert, you only find them in historical novels and contemporary books involving naval warfare.

Cherie Priest lurking in the undergrowth

 

Ganymede features a version of the H L Hunley, a submarine built in Mobile, Alabama in 1863. Now I’ve no particular interest in defending genre boundaries. I don’t care if a book labelled steampunk is actually historical so long as it’s a good read. A classic example of such a blurring comes in The Ebb Tide, a novella by James Blaylock. It has series characters Langdon St. Ives, Jack Owlsby and Hasbro navigating the Thames in a bathyscaphe, while Narbondo commands something approximating a submarine. Except, apart from the British locations, it’s more or less pure fantasy with a shipyard under London’s streets and the final confrontation with the villain taking place in a “nightmare” realm under the sea. Cherie Priest has more or less limited herself to the reality of the Hunley and speculates on how it might have been modified to be safer while on the move and in battle. The navigation down the Mississippi and subsequent naval engagement is historical in style. Indeed, apart from the obvious exaggeration in the use of airships and the odd appearance of a rotter, this could be an action version of, say, one of the Benjamin January novels by Barbara Hambly — set in New Orleans in the 1830s, they deal with the difficulties of people of colour in a blend of historical and mystery genres.

 

This is not to say Ganymede is stronger or weaker because of Cherie Priest’s effort at greater historical accuracy, but it does disturb the general level of inventiveness on display. In Boneshaker we have a digging machine releasing an underground pocket of gas with unfortunate results i.e. it’s a blend of fantasy and horror. Clementine has pursuit and aerial warfare in airships. Dreadnought has a remarkable train and Wellsian fighting machines in a cross-country spy thriller. Ganymede is a more conventional war novel with an army of occupation intent on finding a dangerous newly-invented weapon. There’s a minor flirtation with magic but, with the exception of using the zombies as target practice, the overall feel is realistic. In a sense, this runs contrary to the spirit we would normally expect of a book labelled steampunk.

 

So we have a brief catch-up on the gossip around Seattle, finding out what the folks have been doing since the last novel, then it’s off to New Orleans for the delivery of the submarine to the waiting Admiral Herman Partridge. It’s competently done but it lacks interest and excitement. The whole point of steampunk is that it exaggerates the reality the Victorian Age engineers could deliver. This dumbs down the adventure to the level the contemporary engineers might have delivered and, with the addition of an air crew, the submersible proves easy to “drive” and use to sink enemy craft. This is disappointing, recalling the by-the-numbers adventure stories I read fifty and more years ago.

 

For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Boneshaker
Clementine
Dreadnought
Fathom
Fiddlehead
Ganymede
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
The Inexplicables
Those Who Went Remain There Still

The jacket artwork is, yet again, by Jon Foster.

 

Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2) by Cherie Priest

October 31, 2011 Leave a comment

There’s always something appealing about a freewheeling approach to fiction. It starts off with impetus, bowling along once it has established momentum and, unless something with powerful stopping power gets in its way, it just keeps on a-running. So it was with Bloodshot, the first in The Cheshire Red Reports. Now here comes Hellbent by Cherie Priest. This time we find ourselves in the calm before the storm as Raylene Pendle settles into new premises, and watches with relief and approval as Ian assumes an interest in the waifs who no longer stray quite as much. It’s distracting him from the events of the first novel and providing some stability in the lives of the “kids”.

With the picture of domesticity established, Raylene picks up a job which her instinct tells her is not going to be as easy as her handler would have her believe. And so it is as we watch her walk into her first encounter with what will prove to be a magician of considerable ability. During her escape from indirect attack, she has the chance to acquire another orphan, this time of the feline variety. It seems she’s obsessed with the idea of leaving no-one (human or animal) behind on the battlefield. Now we get into a three-pronged narrative in which she continues to search for the missing box of bacula (the plural of baculum for those who want to look it up), a “murder mystery”, and helping our kick-ass drag queen in the continuing search for his missing sister.

Cherie Priest feeling a little blue

All this involves us flitting from one city to another as we slowly work our way down the shopping list. In the end, we have some of the bacula, an identity for the killer, a sister, another stray, and a probable future collaborator. Several jobs well done, you may say, and indeed it proves so. Hellbent has a slightly more laid-back approach. Bloodshot was more on the serious side with many of the developments coming so thick and fast we arrived at the end feeling somewhat breathless. This is slightly more formulaic because, with only two of the characters on display and better known, we can focus on their situation rather than trying to work them out as people. That said, I do have vague unhappiness. The bacula sequence feels like a bolt-on to establish elements for the third in the series and I’m never happy when an element like the sister has to depend so obviously on coincidence for resolution. For me, it would have been better to focus on the supposed murder and find the sister in a more proactive way. As it stands, this strikes me as lazy plotting to hit a word count. Having had fun with the bacula, that element just stops in its tracks and the sister becomes a dea ex machina to facilitate the escape from Atlanta. This latter feels like a Lionel Fanthorpe ending. He used to write books to a word count and a deadline. When caught short, he would finish with the desperation of a juggler about to drop all the balls. Hellbent is more leisurely that most of the Fanthorpes, but it still feels contrived.

I know we reviewers are supposed to take the book as we find it and not as we would like it to be, yet there’s an additional circumstance to take into account. Curiously, this was only a two-book deal. Publishers have been getting a wee bit more cautious as Amazon flexes its muscles and tries to convince the world it’s in a dominant position. With Borders going belly up and the other brick-and-mortar booksellers struggling in difficult market conditions, we’ll have to wait and see whether Ballantine Spectra shells out for another two (or more) in this series. In this situation, I think Cherie Priest should have left things poised with the arrival of the sister. This would have allowed us a much better development of a rather better mystery element and the political situation between the vampire houses could have been explored in more detail. We could then have had the bacula in volume three should more dollars be forthcoming. Nothing need be wasted. This would have allowed us more time to understand cause and effect, particularly on the question of the earthquake as it affects current and past realities.

So, overall, Hellbent is an entertaining read which develops our understanding of this version of reality. That I think it could have been better is, in a way, a tribute to Cherie Priest. If I had been indifferent, I would simply have put the book back on the shelf and begun the next. But I was sufficiently interested to take the time to analyse the source of my dissatisfaction. For me, she remains an author to watch and my advice to Ballantine is that it should pick up the contract for more in this series.

 

For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Boneshaker
Clementine
Dreadnought
Fathom
Fiddlehead
Ganymede
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
The Inexplicables
Those Who Went Remain There Still

Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1) by Cherie Priest

Well, dear friends, Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1) by Cherie Priest is a “once more into the breach” moment as I pick up yet another of these pesky urban fantasies. So far, I’ve subjected myself to an unrelenting mess of second-rate fantasy with romantic overtones. It’s been all too painfully obvious the publishers have decided young women readers, inexperienced in the real world of fantasy and horror, will buy dumbed down fiction so long as it has a strong heroine looking for, and finding, love. Even Nancy A Collins whom I would normally rate as a reliable genre writer sold out. How will Cherie Priest fare?

 

Well, the cover tells the right story. It’s a hardboiled picture of a noirish girl sporting a smoking gun against an inner city, brick landscape of tenement or factory walls. So someone has ticked the right boxes in the jacket design department. This is urban fantasy 101. And the heroine du jour is a vampire. Well, there’s a novelty. That means she’ll be able to kick ass and suck her male opponents dry. Not so much picking out a hunk as a love interest, more finding someone meaty, with good circulation, as food. Ah, yes, those were the days on the mean streets of Minneapolis. . .

 

So welcome to the first person narrative of Raylene Pendle who, by virtue of her slightly androgynous appearance is sought by Interpol as the male thief nicknamed Cheshire Red — security companies should instal cameras capturing more pixels to the square inch to distinguish gender. She was turned into a vampire in the 1920s and therefore has been slowly maturing psychologically from a flapper into a thoroughly modern girl. Except on the way, she’s picked up quite a lot of baggage. Since vampires are merely quick healing rather than invulnerable, she’s necessarily cautious most of the time. Yet there’s an instinctive recklessness about her as well. This means she gets caught up in the moment, can pitch herself into difficult situations, and has to fight (or eat) her way out again. Obviously, snacking is encouraged as you go to keep up the energy levels.

 

Her relatively calm, “I’m in control of my life existence” is rudely shattered when a fellow vampire, Ian Stott, contacts her. She prefers the life of a loner, avoiding contact with fellow vampires and refusing to make pets of any humans. Yet her curiosity is piqued by Ian’s story of capture and experimentation by the US military. She had not realised governments were not only aware of vampires and other supernatural beings, but also proactively investigating their powers. So she accepts when asked to steal the records of the experiments performed on Ian. Although it exposes her to danger in going up against the military industrial complex, she needs to know whether all vampires are going to be targeted.

Cherie Priest avoiding a vampish look

 

Thematically, we’re already slightly off the usual urban fantasy reservation. Instead of some mildly dangerous supernatural threat to contend with, our heroine is going head-to-head with small battalions of FBI/CIA operatives, all backed-up by the latest in spy satellites and weaponry. The underlying conspiracy-theory idea of the government running secret bases where they experiment on supernatural beings, recording them as lab animals in official records, is also pleasing darker than usual for this subgenre. Although it’s been done before (as in the X-Men universe), this has an altogether more edgy feel to it as our heroine inadvertently trips an internet trap for certain key words. This pitches her out of one of her safe houses as black limos invade her space. Now she’s forced on to the road to track down the missing records. Except, guess what, someone’s been there before her and stolen most of the key documents. Now she’s playing catch-up, trying to work out who might have wanted to steal these documents, and where he or she might be. It all turns out to be a pleasingly macabre double game as motives are slowly brought into focus and faces put to names. By the time we get to the end, we know the name of the person who’s currently running the experiments and, more importantly, we know why.

 

As to the other primary characters, we have an interesting pair of children who’ve volunteered to act as caretakers in one of Raylene’s storage buildings — as a very successful thief, she needs somewhere safe to keep her ill-gotten gains. Then there’s a drag queen with a military background who turns out to be good in a fight, and a Seeing Eye ghoul who looks after Ian and would really prefer not to be involved in anything that would expose them to risk.

 

I confess to being hooked. Although vampires are everywhere these days, this has a well-rounded female of the species, helped out in a tricky situation by Ian who’s been developing a more unusual power. On the human side, the kids are nonstandard and, once the high heels are set aside, our cross-dresser is as formidable as most men get. There’s one kiss but, I’m pleased to say, no obvious romance in the offing as the three-goes-into-two candidates have real trust issues to work through. So Bloodshot is a clever idea for a mystery plot wrapped up in a urban fantasy that’s altogether darker and more adult than any I’ve read in the current batch the publishers have blitzed into the romance marketplace. Kudos goes equally to Cherie Priest for writing a good book and to her agent for convincing a publisher to accept it as urban fantasy with all the consequent hype. It deserves to sell well. The sequel is called Hellbent and I’ve already ordered my copy.

 

For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Boneshaker
Clementine
Dreadnought
Fathom
Fiddlehead
Ganymede
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
The Inexplicables
Those Who Went Remain There Still

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.

Cherie Priest draws power from some old machinery

 

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)
Boneshaker
Clementine
Dreadnought
Fathom
Fiddlehead
Ganymede
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
The Inexplicables
Those Who Went Remain There Still

Dreadnought won the Endeavor Award, 2011

 

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

In her Author’s Note at the end of Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century Volume 1), Cherie Priest confirms the label prominently adorning the jacket, namely that this is intended as a work of steampunk. What’s in a name? Well, labels are useful guides to expectation. If a publisher proudly proclaims, “Western”, you can expect to read about cowboys and the occasional Native American. So what are we supposed to expect when the legend above the door says, “steampunk”?

 

I suppose the easiest way to understand this conceit is to think of Victorian technology as bent out of shape by a modern version of Jules Verne. We start with steam as the primary source of power although this strays into early uses of electricity as the situation requires. Thus, the Nautilus is powered by sodium/mercury batteries, has a desalination plant and so on. All this technology was an extrapolation of what contemporary scientists thought possible. With the benefit of 140 or so years of scientific development since the publication of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, we can be more ingenious. The result is a scientific fantasy in which the invention of machines before their time changes the development of the society and produces an alternate history.

 

I suppose classical or Golden Age SF asked “what if” and then came up with rockets, ray guns and superscience. These postmodernist times encourage the creation of steampunk, asking what would have happened if scientific breakthroughs had come earlier. It parallels the genre of alternate history in which we explore what would have happened if the Spanish invasion had beaten the English under Elizabeth, the South had won the Civil War, and so on. It also tips its hat at metafictional works like Manly Wade and Wade Wellman’s Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds in which well-known characters are transplanted into different fictional contexts. Steampunk can and does involve the use of real people, real events, and more or less real geography.

Cherie Priest — head if not shoulders above the rest

 

Cherie Priest is pursuing a metafictional approach by blurring the genres. Instead of this being SF, i.e. exploring what society would have become had the Boneshaker fulfilled its mission to extract gold from the frozen north, it immediately veers into fantasy/horror with the escaping gas creating a flock of the living dead. In an earlier review, I commented on the British movement to explore how the world would cope with natural disasters like unceasing gale-force wind, rising sea levels, and so on. This was very much a Cold War phenomenon with writers preoccupied by the idea of nuclear Armageddon. Since the majority of people are now bored by stories of the world being wrecked by disasters or aliens — looking at the very poor numbers of people going to see epics like Skyline, grandiose notions of invasions, Space Opera, and other excessive activities are now more often replaced by less extravagant explorations of the past.

 

So the Boneshaker itself is a digging machine — a scaled-down version of the magnificent equipment currently used to create road and rail tunnels. Even with the benefit of our modern technology, we could not reproduce this machine. It’s very much the type of approach associated with James Blaylock in The Digging Leviathan and a true anachronism. This matches the robotic arm which has been attached by use of wooden pegs to the bone above the site of amputation. Given the degree of fine-motor control and its robustness in battle, the arm is pure science fiction. The airships or dirigibles are almost real. Henri Giffard pioneered steam-powered airships in the 1850s, except these are more manoeuvrable and unlikely to survive military use (what with hydrogen being so inflammable). The only other devices seem to owe more to W. Heath Robinson, e.g. using a steam engine to power bellows to draw in fresh air to the underground areas. How fortunate to discover such a rich seam of coal to mine in this apparently volcanic area. How ingenious they have been to keep themselves supplied with food — I assume springs have somehow escaped pollution and there are lights for hydroponic vegetable gardens underground. The airships will also bring in supplies.

 

As to the core plot device, we are rerunning John Carpenter’s Escape From New York with the undead. It’s a fascinating idea that the Civil War society could have built so high a wall so fast. With the gas being heavier than air, it’s an obvious way to trap the gas inside. However, if exposure almost immediately creates undead which then hunger for a little long pork, the workers would have been seriously at risk from the predators and the gas during construction. You would think the army would have made troops and gatling guns available to eliminate the worst of the physical danger. That so many undead have survived so long without falling to bits demonstrates remarkable compassion by the government for the relatives who would, no doubt, have been much saddened to see their undead loved-ones mown down in hails of bullets.

 

As to the characters, I quite like our determined mother and the son is the usual inexperienced youngster who, like all the best stalking-horses, brings all the villains, alive and undead, out of the woodwork. During some of the passages where the boy is our point of view, it tends to the young adult end of the writing scale. Overall, we just about maintain interest although there’s little chance to appreciate any individuals before they are plunged into action. It’s always a balance between different forces. Too much detail slows us down without adding to our enjoyment. If the author is going to kill some characters off, there’s no need to create the basis of empathy. Yet if we never care about anyone except our two main characters, the narrative becomes two-dimensional. It’s all just running around to avoid being eaten by the undead while trying to escape.

 

Overall, Boneshaker is quite good and, if you enjoy work that aims to be steampunk blended with a little horror, then this is for you.

 

For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Boneshaker
Clementine
Dreadnought
Fathom
Fiddlehead
Ganymede
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
The Inexplicables
Those Who Went Remain There Still

Jacket art by Jon Foster who has some interesting artwork in his portfolio.

 

For the record, Boneshaker was shortlisted for the 2009 Nebula Award and the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel. It won the 2010 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

 

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