Dreadnought is the fifth and most recently published work from Cherie Priest's steampunk-plus-zombies alternate-history universe known as The Clockwork Century. The stories in the Clockwork Century take place in North America in 1880 or thereabouts. The Civil War is still ongoing, thanks to the support of the Confederate States of America by the United Kingdom and the Republic of Texas. The Republic is a wealthy and technologically innovative country due to the discovery of fossil petroleum many years before the real-world date.
The stories, both published and forthcoming, from this universe are as follows:
- "Tanglefoot", a short story published in 2008. It's available online and in an anthology called Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. I encourage you to read it.
- Boneshaker, a novel published in 2009. This book tells of the accidental release of zombigenic gas in Seattle, in the Washington Territory, and the ramifications for members of one family that happens to be central to the bigger story. Boneshaker seems to have been Priest's breakthrough work, taking her from modest success to the vanguard of steampunk. I gave this book a 7.5 out 10, but, given how it has stuck with me, I've since cranked that rating up to 8.0.
- Clementine, a novella published in 2010. This book relates the piratical theft, re-theft, and attempted re-re-theft of one example of that quintessential steampunk conveyance, the airship. Clementine was published by Subterranean Press, unlike Boneshaker and Dreadnought, which were published by Tor. Subterranean seems to have printed too small a number of these books, and it is sold out everywhere. It's certainly not available in my new favorite format, audiobook. See the Clockwork Century FAQ for a full explanation. Thus, I have been unable to get my own copy of this book to read. However, it's just been released in Kindle form, so I'll be tackling it as soon as I finish my current book.
- "Reluctance," a short story published in the zombie anthology The Living Dead 2 in September 2010. This is the story that Priest read for us at Dragon*Con. I found it quite enjoyable, and having the author read it to me was a nice bonus.
- Dreadnought, a novel published in 2010 and the subject of this review. This book tells the story of nurse in a Confederate army hospital and the transcontinental journey she undertakes.
- Ganymede, a novel due to Tor on November 1 and is expected to be published in 2011. This story follows the interactions of airship captain, a female Union spy, and a...wait for it...submarine. Priest has been reporting on her progress with the book, and it looks like she may be late. You can hardly blame her. As you can tell by the above list, she's been quite busy over the last couple of years writing stories in the Clockwork Century, and she has also written some other stories as well.
- Inexplicable, a novel scheduled to be published by Tor in 2012. This book will be set in Seattle and involve both zombies---fairly expected by now---and at least one sasquatch---not so expected. If we're lucky, we'll see a zombie sasquatch by the end.
I should point out that the stories in this universe are essentially stand-alone. They have overlapping characters, but one can read them in any order with no significant loss of understanding or enjoyment.
After seeing Cherie Priest at close range during her panel* and reading at Dragon*Con, I find that I like her and want her books to do well. My personal affection for her might lead me to be enthusiastic about her work and to give this novel a better review than I otherwise would.
What I Liked
- Dreadnought gives readers of the Clockwork Century their first glimpse of the war at the center of this universe. The scenes in the Confederate hospital are grim, as you might expect, but also gripping.
- The plot is fast-paced. One of my not-favorite aspects of Boneshaker was that if seemed to drag just a bit at times. Dreadnought barely stops for breath after it gets going.
- The central character, Vinita "Mercy" Swackhammer Lynch is an almost inhumanly strong character but is somehow still believable and relatable.
- Airships, walkers, train engines equipped with heavy weaponry, and zombies. What's not to love?
- The narrator of this story, Kate Reading, brings the text to life. She does not match John Lee's ability to produce seemingly limitless voices and accents, but she does a solid job. In particular, the voice she uses for the protagonist seems just about perfect to my ear. My only complaint related to her is that she tends to draw out the word at the end of a sentence or clause in a way that sounds almost like a whine to me.
What I Disliked
- The last chapter and a half felt somewhat tacked-on. In my opinion, those who have read Boneshaker will find this epilogue-like segment of the book almost entirely superfluous, and those who haven't will find it hurried and too expository. There's a point a little before the end of the penultimate chapter that I feel would make a better end to the story. That being said, I did enjoy the particular two quotations on which the story ends.
The Bottom Line
Overall, I give Dreadnought 8.5 out of 10. By following Boneshaker with an even better novel, Priest has solidified her grip on the tittle of "high priestess of steampunk," as given to her by The Seattle Times. Perhaps the most succinct way to express my feelings about this book is this: I'm excited to read Clementine. If you like steampunk or zombies or Civil War fiction, you should look into this novel.
Update: OMG pwnies! Cherie Priest tweeted about this review and about why our blog's address had her worried. My carefully considered response to this devlopement is this: Squee!
* I don't think that a single person can hold a panel, but that's what the event was called.