Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series was one of the first to introduce me to steampunk. It showed me that the genre was more interesting than I’d originally thought, and it has taken off in popularity. Who would have thought that an alternate history Civil War America could be fertile ground for a steampunk tale? Loosely following the events of Boneshaker, Dreadnought focuses on new main character crossing the country to zombie infested Seattle.
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“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.”
I’d definitely describe this novel as being all about the atmosphere. The opening scenes in the battlefield hospital are brutally vivid, and the places that Mercy passes through on her way to Seattle are easy to visualize. There are war machines that run on steam plodding through the landscape, and the Dreadnought itself is a looming presence through much of the book.
When I say that this novel is all about atmosphere, I mean it. The plot is the barest thread on which to hang the various events of the book. Supposedly, the book is about Mercy going to see her injured father, but the tale is solely about her journey and all the strange things that happen during her travels. In fact, the book ends so abruptly that when I read it on my Nook, I thought I might have gotten a bad file and was missing the final chapter. It turns out that I wasn’t, but I went and checked a physical copy because it was a very sudden ending. The Dreadnought’s presence wasn’t integral to the plot (not even as a vehicle for getting Mercy to Seattle), unlike the Boneshaker in the previous novel.
That doesn’t mean, however, that I didn’t enjoy the book. Priest excels at keeping her readers hooked with her writing style and her clever dialogue, and so the tale moves along briskly. Mercy is a likeable and no-nonsense character that is never overshadowed by other events or other characters. While some of the supporting cast isn’t as fully realized as Mercy, they still add flavor to the story. Some books can get away with a little thinness of plot, and this is one of them. The author is a good enough writer that I can certainly be happy with a novel based in location and time rather than actions. And there were some intriguing hints of things that will contribute to the series’ overall arc down the road.
Perhaps the novel just wasn’t what I expected it to be, and thus I’m a little disappointed in what I actually got. Nevertheless, Dreadnought is a good read and one that will leave readers eager for the next Clockwork Century novel.
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on October 26, 2011.