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REVIEW: Dreadnought by Cherie Priest


Dreadnought by Cherie Priest Title: Dreadnought
Author: Cherie Priest
Pub Date: September 28, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Exciting steampunk set in an alternate nineteenth century America.

Dreadnought by Cherie Priest is an excellent steampunk novel set in an alternate 19th century America: replete with airships, trains, walking war machines, and zombies; what more could you ask? While set in the same universe as her 2009 Boneshaker, Dreadnought is a standalone novel and can certainly be enjoyed without having read Boneshaker.

I’ve been a fan of Priest’s since she knocked the ball out of the park with her Hugo-and-Nebula-nominated Boneshaker in 2009. Boneshaker introduced me to her “Clockwork Century,” a nineteenth century United States where the Civil War has gone on for twenty years. The characters, the pacing, and the writing of that book sucked me in and left me thinking about it months after I’d read it and so I was eagerly looking forward to Dreadnought. Thankfully, Priest did not disappoint.

Dreadnought follows Venita “Mercy” Lynch, a southern nurse working at a military hospital in Virginia as she travels across the country to see her estranged father in Seattle. Her trip takes us down the front lines of the Civil War and across the frontier. Mercy is just passing through all of the places she visits, and we’re just passing through with her. As a result, Dreadnought is understandably not as grounded in place as Boneshaker was. But Mercy focuses her attention on the people she encounters during her trip, and this performs two admirable tricks: it grounds the book in time, and it instantly makes us care about our hero.

The characters and the voice are the best part of this book: they are what kept me turning pages on the edge of my seat. While written in close-perspective third person, I felt like I was reading a first-person book. The details mentioned in the prose observations and the cadence of individual sentences cemented me in Mercy’s head. Priest admirably avoids typographic sleight-of-hand (which I usually find annoying as all hell) to establish her characters as “southern” or “western” or “Mexican”: her dialog is generally written in clear, understandable English. But the way she constructs her sentences gives each character and even the third-person narrator a distinct “flavor” that establishes them in time and place. Even the narrator spoke in my head with a slight southern accent, the kind one might hear from northern Virginia. Throughout Dreadnought’s 400 pages, there was only one (exactly one!) sentence that rang off-true and knocked me out of Mercy’s head. The rarity of such a misstep is a testament to the skill with which Priest draws her characters and grounds them in her fictionalized history.

Fans of alternate history might want to take Priest’s fictional history with a grain of salt: this is not a Harry Turtledove alternate history that painstakingly considers actual history and how it might have played out differently. Instead, Priest makes a sweeping conceit and uses it to buttress a fantasy world. In this, her work is closer to Emma Bull’s Territory or Patricia C. Wrede’s Frontier Magic than to Harry Turtledove’s Timeline-191.

Nonetheless, the book is heavily informed by Civil War history. In her acknowledgments, Priest mentions using the Louisa May Alcott letters to research her fictional Civil War hospital and this homework shows: the opening chapters bring to mind Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During the War, with all of the pain and hardship of nineteenth century medical care. If the facts of history are altered, the basic feeling, lifestyles, and value systems are consistent with what I have read about late nineteenth century America. This firmly establishes Dreadnought in time, making Priest’s “alternate USA” plausible.

“Classic” steampunk motifs – airships, steam/diesel-powered “walkers”, trains – are rendered believably: Mercy is ignorant of much of the mechanics, but she is forced to deal with them and we learn about them along with her. These devices struck me as more prevalent in Dreadnought than they were in Boneshaker, but as methods-of-conveyance they played a more central role to the story so it makes sense.

If there is anything to criticize in this book, it is not the author’s fault. If you buy this book and want to avoid spoilers, avoid the back cover copy. I made the mistake of reading it, and was given a very neat little synopsis of the first 65% of the book. Thank you for that, but I’d rather read the book: next time, just “vague it up” a bit, please. Barring this (minor) complaint, the rest of the book’s design is superb: excellent cover art by Jon Foster (who also did the cover for Boneshaker), and a brilliant sepia ink really make the book an attractive object in its own right.

Dreadnought is an improvement over the already-excellent Boneshaker. It is a simpler story, but that simplicity gives us greater richness. I thought Boneshaker was a good example of steampunk being the new gothic, and Dreadnought continues this tradition. It feels less Gothic, but that is due to its lack of a solitary villain and its persistent sense of motion (which isn’t really surprising in a travel story).

This book is tremendously fun to read. It is exciting, the characters engaging and the monsters scary. If you like zombies and the steampunk aesthetic, you will love this book.

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