Tuesday 16 November 2010

Book Review: Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

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Nurse Mercy Lynch is elbows deep in bloody laundry at a war hospital in Richmond, Virginia, when Clara Barton comes bearing bad news: Mercy's husband has died in a POW camp. On top of that, a telegram from the west coast declares that her estranged father is gravely injured, and he wishes to see her. Mercy sets out toward the Mississippi River. Once there, she'll catch a train over the Rockies and - if the telegram can be believed - be greeted in Washington Territory by the sheriff, who will take her to see her father in Seattle. Reaching the Mississippi is a harrowing adventure by dirigible and rail through war-torn border states.

When Mercy finally arrives in St. Louis, the only Tacoma-bound train is pulled by a terrifying Union-operated steam engine called the Dreadnought. Reluctantly, Mercy buys a ticket and climbs aboard. What ought to be a quiet trip turns deadly when the train is beset by bushwhackers, then vigorously attacked by a band of Rebel soldiers. The train is moving away from battle lines into the vast, unincorporated west, so Mercy can't imagine why they're so interested. Perhaps the mysterious cargo secreted in the second and last train cars has something to do with it? Mercy is just a frustrated nurse who wants to see her father before he dies. But she'll have to survive both Union intrigue and Confederate opposition if she wants to make it off the Dreadnought alive.


You know, I didn't love Boneshaker.

Boneshaker, remember? Book one of The Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest... nominated for a Hugo, one of genre fiction's most prestigious awards - and for best novel no less. You might know it as Steampunk in Seattle. Ringing any bells yet?

Of course it does - forgive my dubious attempt at humour. All I mean to say is: as fine a time as I had with it then, a year on from Boneshaker, I'm sure finding it tough to remember. As a matter of fact, I thought it sort of forgettable then, too, particularly after all the early word I'd heard praising it to the nines. Rather than the "hollering, stamping, crackling thing" Warren Ellis and an assortment of other names I respect indicated, I found it a flat and largely ill-considered thing only made worthwhile by an admittedly rollicking last act.

Dreadnought touches down near-enough a year to the day of Boneshaker's release, and it's evident from the outset that not a lot has changed. Forgive me for stating the bleeding obvious, but if Boneshaker wasn't for you, nor will this be - though I should say, it's at least the equal of that narrative. Take that as you may. Priest conjures up another Strong Female Character: this iteration's Briar Wilkes is Vinita 'Mercy' Lynch, a nurse who gives up the grind to shed her blood, sweat and tears on a missing man. In Dreadnought, that's Mercy's absent biological father, Jeremiah Swakhammer, who after his heroism in Boneshaker seems to be on the way out. Lately bereft of her soldier husband, news of whose death in the civil war which rages across the heartlands of The Clockwork Century's alt-America has only just reached her, Mercy means to reconnect with her daddy while she still can - or perhaps she simply needs direction. As she admits "to the small piles of money, and the new stockings and gloves and toiletries laid out across the bed, 'I guess now that Phillip's gone, I just don't have anywhere to go. Or, at least,' she amended the sentiment with a catch in her throat, 'I don't have anywhere I've gotta be.'" (p.120)

After rather a lot of faffing, Mercy takes passage to the very other end of the continental United States on a behemoth of a train: massively armoured, heavily defended and carrying a need-to-know cargo, time is very much of the essence, and Dreadnought is her only hope of getting to her daddy while the getting's good.

The ride's a bumpy one in more ways than one. Early readers of Priest's latest have brought to light certain issues with the time it takes Mercy to hitch from Richmond to Tacoma. Let me say this: I could care less. Improbable distances are travelled - fine. In the interests of pacing, the disparity is hardly a show-stopper. But surely there are more noteworthy incidents for Priest to recount along the road than those she does. Dreadnought seems a narrative in search of some driving force for the larger part. For one thing, Mercy takes a long-ass time getting onboard the titular train; for another, both before, during and after she encounters an array of characters who come and go (would that they would only go a little quicker) with absolutely nothing of note to say for themselves - nor to add to the grander narrative, such as it is.

Dreadnought entertains in all the same ways Boneshaker did, in the end - the denouement is neat, make no mistake, and the climax which anticipates it functions as an exciting and satisfying throwback to Westerns of yore - but as with the first novel of The Clockwork Century series, the getting there can be trying. Improbable situations, perfunctory if not blindingly obvious dialogue and repetition, repetition - golly-gosh the repetition! - leave Dreadnought feeling like a fine novella bloated into a longer thing which does little other than tread water before the good times finally roll.

When they do, though...


by Cherie Priest

US Publication: November 2010, Tor / Seven Seas

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