I first got turned on to Cherie Priest by the buzz around Boneshaker, her 2009 novel which was on the Hugo ballot in a very strong year (the eventual winner was a tie between The Windup Girl and The City & The City, both of which are among the very best recent SF I’ve seen.) She’s continued to make waves with her Clockwork Century works, including this one, as well as other projects.
I had very mixed feelings about Boneshaker. I genuinely admired its craftsmanship – Priest is a devastatingly skilled writer. In the words of Mark Twain, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between the lightning and a lightning bug, and Priest rarely missteps. In addition she created very strong characters for her world and the plot deals with a mother-son dynamic that both felt right and isn’t a very common theme to see in SF works. That said, I’m not a huge fan of steampunk. And I’m pretty much sick to death of zombies. Therefore a steampunk zombie novel is not, perhaps, the best way for me to spend my entertainment dollar. I was left with the feeling that it was done well but not necessarily done for me, and I moved on.
But I was intrigued by it well enough to pick up Dreadnought more or less without knowing anything about it (especially since I got in off a big table at the Borders liquidation sale at a big discount), in the hope that it would contain more of what I liked and less of what I didn’t. Alas, no.
So I guess in a sense this is the inverse of the review I had for Aloha From Hell, where I stated that I couldn’t personally vouch for the objective quality of the work but enjoyed the hell (sorry) out of it anyway. In this case, the book is actually pretty good, has solid writing, nice command of tone, OK (but not outstanding) characterization, and admirable attention to detail. I would say I think it’s a little weak in pacing in parts, but I’d honestly have to say that it wouldn’t be a deal breaker for me for a book whose subject matter I liked better. Nonetheless, I just don’t like it very much, but this may say more about me than the book.
The first thing that simply doesn’t work for me is the suspension of disbelief required for an alternate history work. In Priest’s Clockwork Century novels, it’s 1880 and the Civil War has been ongoing for twenty years. Texas isn’t part of the Confederacy, though, although they are allied – in the 1840s the Republic of Texas discovered oil at Spindletop earlier than in our world and this began fuelling all sorts of coal and diesel powered machinery, for war and otherwise. So, Texas never joined the US at all and has become an industrial power in its own right. The Confederacy has, too, and both the Union and the Confederates have various airships, mechanized weapons, war walkers, and various other steam-powered armored horrors to inflict an early World War I style trench massacre upon each other.
But wait, you might say (as I did), if the sides are basically industrialized and evenly matched, then what was the Civil War being fought over in the first place? We’re told that at this point it’s just a grudge match that is continuing because it’s there and no one has won yet. We’re also told that the Confederates early on realized that mechanization was the way to go and gave up slavery so that everyone could pitch in to the industrialized war effort on a grand scale.
I don’t buy it. Say what you will about the good aspects of the antebellum South, but any sort of racial equality was not part of it. In the real Civil War, the idea of using slaves as soldiers was floated a few times throughout the real Confederacy, and rejected in horror as the concept of slaves with weaponry strikes terror into the collective hearts of all slaveholding societies (such as Howell Cobb’s famous line that if slaves could make good soldiers then it was wrong to keep them as slaves.) The South was also famously lacking in railroads and factories of all kinds. So as an alternate history, it doesn’t make any sense that things developed this way. It seems like more of a gimmick so you can have more sympathetic Confederate characters for a modern audience, characters who are fighting for hearth and home (as they were in real life, too) but not necessarily defense of slavery, which is really the whole basis for the war in real life in the first place, and inextricable from the Confederate cause. I mean, I don’t think Priest is a Lost Cause apologist or anything, I think she’s just trying to tell a good story, but I studied this era pretty substantially at one point and I just can’t get over its massive unlikelihood. I’m far more willing to go along with the diesel powered war walkers than the 1860s American South collectively deciding that black people should be full citizens. So an alternate history that tries to use an interesting setting but elides the bad parts is jarring for me.
The second thing that I didn’t really like about this is that the zombies are back. Zombies are of course in every single goddamned thing these days, which started off okay in my opinion but now I'm just tired of it. At this point I’m basically okay with zombies in comedy (such as Shaun of the Dead) or in straight-up supernatural works (Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels or Richard Kadrey’s Kill the Dead) where you can basically hand-wave the whole zombie thing away by saying it’s magic or just ignore it to tell a good joke. But in allegedly realistic settings they don’t work for me.
If you read Boneshaker you know that the zombie epidemic began in Seattle after semi-malevolent inventor Leviticus Blue accidentally breached an underground pocket of some sort of gas with the titular badass steampunk excavation device. Breathing in the gas makes you a zombie, being bitten by a zombie might make you a zombie also, but it’s not a guaranteed thing. They’re decaying and dead, they pursue the living and eat them. Apparently now there are pockets of the undead throughout the Southwest too, and of course some assholes are trying to figure out how to weaponize them.
I guess the reason that I’m all right with supernatural zombies but not with “realistic” ones is that this work is supposed to take place in a real world with rules we’re familiar with. If the guy is dead, then his metabolic processes don’t work, so he can’t move at all, much less chase the living. If he’s alive in some sort of form, then due to the laws of thermodynamics he can’t be a Perpetual Motion Zombie, just sitting around indefinitely waiting for some protagonist to come by and get chased. He’ll starve! The narrative purpose of Perpetual Motion Zombies is for them to be faceless, hostile antagonists like orcs, so that you can have thrilling violence without having to deal with the moral implications of actually committing violence against, you know, people. It’s OK to do whatever you want to a zombie.
And so these are the reasons that I can’t get into the worldbuilding here; you’ve got a world cleanly excised of troublesome moral issues to set up a conflict with some enemies that you can kill with impunity. I will say that in both this novel and in Boneshaker the zombies are not the primary threat, but instead people are the fundamental problem in both cases. And that’s a good thing, so I like that. But these are troublesome issues for my enjoyment of the book.
Now, all of that and I haven’t even gotten to the plot yet. We join one Mercy Lynch, a nurse in a Confederate hospital in Virginia, who in short order finds out that her soldier husband has died in a POW camp, and her ailing father wants her to visit him in Seattle before he dies. With the dead husband she’s conveniently unattached, so she packs her bag and heads off on a thrilling adventure. Just getting to the train station requires her to navigate a war zone, and once she’s there the only available transport is a forbidding Union war train, but she bites the bullet and gets on board. From there it’s a series of confrontations with bandits and Confederate raiders, not to mention saboteurs and the underlying question of what’s in the last car and why it’s more enticing than all the money and deeds stuffed in the train too.
Quite a bit of this is exciting, don’t get me wrong, but it’s interspersed with much quotidian concerns like queuing up at the ticket counter and engaging in polite conversation with other (occasionally stupid and dull) people on the train. There’s a Texas Ranger in there too, which is pretty cool, and Mercy is an interesting character, but I don’t know, it just wasn’t my thing. And I thought that the end was almost shockingly abrupt, although upon reflection it makes a little sense, as Mercy was trying to accomplish something and she did and there’s really no point in carrying on about it. Still, not a lot of denouement here.
So after all of this I’m left with the same feeling I had about Boneshaker, which is that this is probably a really good niche book for its intended audience, which doesn’t include me. If Priest ever writes something without zombies in it sometime I’ll probably be, if not first in line to get it, along presently.