Dreadnought, Cherie Priest’s follow up to the Hugo and Nebula nominated Boneshaker, is the literary equivalent of a Schwarzenegger action movie. The joy is all in the explosions and chases. Just don’t look too closely at why anything is going on, because the reasons why the explosions happen don’t always make a lot of sense. Although this is the third book set in her Clockwork Century series, the story does not rely in the least bit on the previous books. In fact, some parts of it might be better if you haven’t, as you’ll have some explanations for artifacts that newer readers will not.
Mercy Lynch is a nurse in a Confederate hospital in Virginia. Shortly after she gets word that her Union husband has died in a prisoner of war camp, she receives a telegram from her long lost father, now dying in Seattle. Not having a large amount of direction in her life now that her husband is dead, she quits the hospital and embarks on a cross continent trip to meet her father. In the Clockwork Century 1880s, that means traversing the front lines of the Civil War, and then crossing the mostly ungoverned west.
The first part of the trip is to be made by dirigible. While the denizens of the Clockwork Century have some cool flying machines, what they don’t have is good non-flammable lighting. The soldiers below them can’t tell who they are, whether they are friendly or enemy. So they start shooting! That’s not good when your transportation involves giant balloons of hydrogen.
The second leg is to be conducted by train. Specifically, the Dreadnought, a highly armored and well-armed locomotive owned by the Union army. It just so happens that the most dreaded Confederate locomotive will be transporting war dead to their families out west and will be taking along a few passenger cars as well! It’s cheap, and fast, and the military will keep away the run of the mill train robbers. But just what is in that sealed car that supposedly carries bodies? Because it seems like someone wants it and is willing to bring some big guns to bear on the Dreadnought.
More than anything else, the key to Dreadnought is it’s plotting and pacing. The wait between pressure filled situations is perhaps 10 pages at most. Because Mercy is a nurse, she becomes a portable E.R. crossing the continent, starting with near-dying and dying soldiers in the war hospital, followed by battlefield nursing, and all sorts of other people needing medical care, all of whom could die quickly!
Though other people’s deaths frequently provide the tension, so does Mercy’s almost imminent death as well. Shooting at your hydrogen filled blimp? Staring down the mad doctor? Ducking behind piled up luggage as rebels shoot at you? Jumping between moving railroad cars and holding onto a frozen railing hoping that someone on the ledge will pull you up? You’d probably find fewer ways Mercy’s life isn’t in danger than is.
There’s actually less steampunk going on in Dreadnought than in the Clockwork Century’s first book, Boneshaker. That book had giant steam powered mining machines used to rob banks, mysterious gases and gas masks, a walled city, pipes and tubing, exotic weaponry, dirigibles, and more. The sequel has an armored train, more dirigibles, robotic exoskeletons for soldiers, and a tri-wheeled attack vehicle. And that’s about it. This is much closer to a straight western adventure than the previous book, and might work pretty good as a gateway drug for people who think they won’t like steampunk.
Priest includes a disclaimer at the beginning of the book:
This is a work of fiction, featuring impossible politics, unlikely zombies, and some ludicrously incorrect Civil War action. I hope you enjoy it! And I’d like to thank you in advance for not sending me e-mail to tell me how bad my history is. I think we all know I’ve fudged the facts rather significantly. (Except the zombie parts.)
With that in mind, I do want to bring up some of the impossible politics. Not because it’s wrong, but because it’s interesting. Because the Clockwork Century’s version of the Civil War has stretched into it’s third decade, the South has changed how it treats its resident black people. All but two of the states have freed their slaves because economically they couldn’t afford to keep them subjugated with the war continuing. The result is that the South moves more or less voluntarily to where Reconstruction in our version of history brought them. On the one hand, I think it’s correct that economic forces really wouldn’t have done much better at freeing slaves and combating racism. But I also have to wonder just how much people would voluntarily contribute to a state that is actively fighting to keep them in slavery. There are economic and social forces that could make that happen. Priest obviously thinks about such things, but has also made a conscious decision to keep the focus of her books away from politics, so we’ll have to look to other books to explore the idea.
And because I’m a cranky dude, I do have to mention the plot holes. I can give Priest a pass on the ludicrously incorrect world-building. But man do I wish some of the action made more sense. The most dreadful Dreadnought seems quite tame when Mercy is a passenger. The reasons for putting civilians on the train seem really thin. The reasons why the train is going west at all are rather slight. Then there are the minor characters that all of a sudden decide they want to be spies, and then go back to being uninvolved immediately after their scene is through. I thought she built really solid motivations for her characters in the first book, so this was somewhat disappointing. So, uh, look at that shiny (and yet oh so gritty) boiler, it might be about to explode!