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Monday, September 13, 2010

“Dreadnought” by Cherie Priest (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Cherie Priest Website
Official The Clockwork Century Website
Order “DreadnoughtHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of “Boneshaker
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of “Clementine

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Cherie Priest is the author of numerous novels including the Blooker-Award winning Four and Twenty Blackbirds, Fathom, Wings to the Kingdom, Not Flesh Nor Feathers, and Boneshaker which was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. She is also the author of the novellas Dreadful Skin, Those Who Went Remain There Still and Clementine published by Subterranean Press, as well as numerous short stories and nonfiction articles that have appeared in Weird Tales, Publishers Weekly, and the Stoker-nominated anthology Aegri Somnia from Apex Book Company. Forthcoming releases include the urban fantasy novels Bloodshot and Hellbent through Bantam Spectra.

PLOT SUMMARY: Nurse Mercy Lynch is hard at work at a war hospital in Richmond, Virginia when she receives the news of her husband’s death. To make matters worse, a telegram from the west coast declares that her estranged father is gravely injured, and he wishes to see her. With nothing tying her down, Mercy sets out west toward the Mississippi River. Once there, she’ll catch a train over the Rockies and into Washington where she’ll be greeted by the sheriff, who will then take Mercy to see her father in Seattle.

Of course, it’s not that easy. Reaching the Mississippi itself is a harrowing adventure through war-torn border states, and when Mercy finally does arrive in St. Louis, the only Washington-bound train is pulled by a terrifying Union-operated steam engine called the Dreadnought. Normally the Dreadnought is deployed in the eastern war frontier, running supplies and artillery reinforcements along the Mason-Dixon to refresh Union forces, but on this particular trip, the war engine is towing deceased soldiers back to their homes in the west for burial. With few options left to her, Mercy reluctantly boards the train.

Unfortunately, things are rarely what they look like on the surface, and the Dreadnought’s mission is no exception. Now, Mercy will have to survive both Union intrigue and Confederate opposition if she ever wants to see her father again...

CLASSIFICATION: The Clockwork Century series is set in an alternate history America, circa 1880, flavored with steampunk, western, intrigue, and horror.

FORMAT/INFO: Dreadnought is 400 pages long divided over twenty-two numbered chapters. Narration is in the third-person, exclusively via the nurse, Mercy Lynch. Dreadnought is self-contained, but loosely connected to Boneshaker and Clementine, the first two volumes in the Clockwork Century series. September 28, 2010 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of Dreadnought via Tor. The beautiful cover art is provided by Jon Foster who also did the artwork for Boneshaker and Clementine. (NOTE: The artwork below is the original design, which I like just as much, if not more than the new design)

ANALYSIS: How can a novel be both a pleasure to read and a disappointment at the same time? When that novel is Dreadnought, a satisfying reading experience when judged by its own merits, but disappointing when compared to its predecessors...

Dreadnought is the third volume in Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series after Boneshaker and the short novel Clementine. Like Boneshaker and Clementine, Dreadnought is self-contained, though loosely connected to the other volumes. In particular, Dreadnought stars Vinita “Mercy” Lynch, the daughter of Jeremiah Swakhammer who was introduced in Boneshaker, while other connections include sap and rotters. Dreadnought is also like Boneshaker and Clementine in that the book offers a different reading experience from the other volumes, which is where my opinion of the novel starts to diverge.

On the one hand, I applaud Cherie Priest’s decision to make each volume in the Clockwork Century series different from one another. After all, as much as I loved Boneshaker, the series would get stale quickly if every subsequent volume was just like the first one. So from this perspective, I’m able to appreciate some of the ways in which Dreadnought differs from the other Clockwork Century books. For instance, Dreadnought finally offers readers an intimate look at the Civil War that has been raging for nearly two decades in Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century setting, a war that had been mostly relegated to the backdrop in Boneshaker and Clementine. As a result, Dreadnought possesses a darker, more serious atmosphere than its predecessors, one more appropriate to the book’s subject matter. Additionally, Dreadnought takes the time to develop thought-provoking themes that were only hinted at in Clementine including racism, loyalty, gender roles, and the rigors of war.

On the other hand, there were some differences I could have done without. For starters, Dreadnought is just not as entertaining as either Boneshaker or Clementine. That’s not to say that Dreadnought doesn’t have its moments. The scenes involving a crashed dirigible, giant mechanized walkers, raids against the Dreadnought-pulled train, and a climactic race against the Confederate engine, Shenandoah, are truly breathtaking for example. It’s just that these moments are few and far between, especially compared to how long it takes to get to the good parts, thanks to an inordinate amount of time spent on tedious matters like securing passage on various forms of transportation or becoming acquainted with fellow passengers. The author does incorporate some mystery and intrigue into Dreadnought in the form of missing Mexican soldiers, spies, sabotage, an inexplicable illness caused by sap addiction, and the Dreadnought’s mysterious cargo. Unfortunately, these subplots either take too long to develop with little payoff, or are too easy to figure out in advance, especially if you’ve already read Boneshaker. In short, I believe Dreadnought would have worked much better if it had been written as a novella like Clementine. With a smaller word count, much of the unnecessary parts could have been cut out, resulting in a faster-paced and more engaging reading experience.

Another difference I did not appreciate, was the author’s decision to write Dreadnought solely from the point of view of Mercy Lynch, whereas both Boneshaker and Clementine featured narratives that alternated between two different characters. I understand it would have been difficult to incorporate additional perspectives into Dreadnought considering the book’s plot, but I believe doing so would have kept things more interesting, while speeding up the pace.

On a related note, I also had issues with the actual characters in Dreadnought. One of the things I loved most about Boneshaker and Clementine were the memorable characters, both the leads and the supporting cast. In Dreadnought, Mercy Lynch may be a strong and resourceful protagonist, but she just doesn’t measure up to the much more interesting Briar Wilkes from Boneshaker or Clementine’s Belle Boyd. Part of the problem is a personality that lacks distinctiveness, although my main issue with Mercy Lynch is that she seemed to get caught up in events not because it was in her nature to do so, but because of her profession as a nurse. To make matters worse, the supporting cast—including the Ranger Horatio Korman, Miss Theodora Clay, Captain MacGruder, the scientist Malverne Purdue—also fail to impress, especially compared to the likes of Andan Cly, Lucy O’Gunning, Jeremiah Swakhammer, Algernon Rice, Phinton Kulp, etc. That all said, it’s hard not to appreciate Mercy Lynch as a character. After all, how many speculative fiction novels feature a nurse as the main protagonist? In particular, a nurse that eschews the stereotypes usually associated with the profession in favor of a more esteemed representation.

Despite the various issues I had with Dreadnought compared to its predecessors, I’m pleased to report that Cherie Priest’s performance is once again excellent, even if the dialogue falls short of the brilliance displayed in Clementine. In fact, Dreadnought may be some of the author’s best work yet, highlighted by such vivid prose as the following passage:

“Moving up and down the aisles was like crashing through someone else’s nightmare, and it was an increasingly dark nightmare, with exponentially more terrors, as the light faded and the confusion mounted.”

CONCLUSION: Judged by its own merits, Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought is a satisfying reading experience highlighted by skillful writing, a strong female protagonist, and heart-pounding action sequences. The problem I had with Dreadnought is when comparing the novel to the highly entertaining Boneshaker and the even more impressive Clementine. Compared to those books, Dreadnought, despite its many virtues, just doesn’t offer the same kind of fun, nonstop entertainment, or unforgettable characters that can be found in the pages of Boneshaker and Clementine. Thus, my disappointment for the novel. That said, I’m still going to be one of the first people in line for Cherie Priest’s next Clockwork Century novel, Republic of Texas...


Peter said...

Another good review, Robert! Looks like they changed the cover, eh?

I better get on reading Boneshaker before this one gets out there.

Thanks again!

Robert said...

Thanks Peter! Glad you liked the review and I hope you get a chance to read Boneshaker soon. It's worth it :) As far as the cover, I don't know why there is a different image on the Tor website and Amazon, but the one I posted is the correct one according to the publicist. Personally, I like either one...

Sarah said...

I haven't read anything by Priest yet, but it seems like Boneshaker was a hit (from what I've read about it). Your review makes me want to explore some of her stuff. It just so happens that I'm going to the library today.......

Robert said...

Sarah, "Boneshaker" was the first thing I ever read by Cherie Priest, and loved it! Now she's on my must-read list, so I would definitely give the book a try if you can :)

Btw, I guess I was misinformed about the Dreadnought cover art, which I have since corrected...

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