Dreadnought is the second book in the Clockwork Century series, after Boneshaker. Read our previous review on that title if you missed it.
Historical fiction and fantasy often overlap in their readership, particularly when it comes to epic fantasy and medieval historical fiction. Any novel that touches on history should make an honest attempt at accuracy. The right detail can make the world come alive. But, what do you do when the history you want to explore gets in the way of your purely fantastical story? Even worse, what about when that history is… problematic?
Sometimes, good fiction needs a little revisionist history.
Dreadnought is ostensibly set in an American Civil War… but not our Civil War. In the Clockwork Century setting, all but two Confederate states abolished slavery in the 1850’s, and it is heavily implied that the holdouts will be forced to follow suit very soon. There is still tension between the north and the south over the role of the federal government, but without 1) the economic pressure powerful southerners felt to protect their evil institutions, and 2) the need to fight a war and police their oppressed classes at home, two things happen: the war starts later, and it lasts much, much longer. That’s the theory, anyway.
In my opinion, this was a brilliant decision. Most importantly, Ms. Priest is more free to write interesting, dynamic black characters in powerful roles ranging from doctors to army officers to business owners. Second, confederate characters are free of the stain of fighting for an intrinsically evil cause.
But, all that background takes up about half a page of the text. What’s the real heart of the story? I’ll tell you. But first…
Title: Dreadnought (Clockwork Century #2)
Author: Cherie Priest
Genre: Science Fiction, Steampunk, Pulp Adventures
Published: Tor, 2011
Mercy Lynch is devastated by twin blows nearly three years into her tour as a nurse for the confederate army: her husband, long missing, is confirmed dead, and her father is dying in far-off Seattle. (Boneshaker fans perk up at the mention of that ominous city). She embarks on a quest to reach her dying father, braving enemy fire along airships, steamboats, and wagon trails, until she ultimately reaches the eponymous Dreadnought: a steam engine capable of reaching speeds upwards of 90 miles per hour. All along, Mercy continually runs into the mysterious sap, which turns men into walking corpses with a hunger for living flesh.
On this bullet train, nobody is who they seem, and mysteries about. What’s going on with the two sections off-limits to passengers? Why are confederate, union, Texan, and Mexican agents on the same line? How long can these competing forces share such a small space without spilling blood?
Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, there are steampunk mechs. That’s right, Civil-war-era giant robots.
Why This Book Is For You:
Dreadnought and Boneshaker alike are just… fun. They’re the campy fun of a good old-fashioned pulp adventure, and honestly, that’s enough for me. The pacing is tight, the characters well-imagined, and ridiculous twists and pulse-pounding action drive the story forward.
At the same time, Dreadnought asks real questions about the dehumanizing affects of war. Why do humans kill one another over political differences? What cost do we pay for victory? The passengers of the Dreadnought certainly find out.
Where Can You Learn More?
You can find Cherie Priest at her blog, The Haunt. If you’re looking for more commercial options, you can find her at Tor.com or on Amazon. She gave an interesting interview over at Northwest Book Lovers around the time Dreadnought released.
Happy reading, folks.