Dreadnought by Cherie Priest is a breakneck action filled steampunk title that grabs hold and never lets go. Vinita “Mercy” Lynch is a nurse at the Confederate hospital in Robertson, Virginia. When news of her husband’s death (a Union soldier) arrives it is followed quickly by news of her estranged father’s illness and a request that she visit him in Seattle. With little left holding her at the hospital Mercy packs her few bags and heads West. Of course this wouldn’t be much of a story if things didn’t go horribly horribly wrong and Mercy is constantly besieged by trouble of all varieties.
While I most definitely enjoyed Priest’s first Clockwork Century novel, Boneshaker, there were parts of it that bogged me down. That wasn’t so much the case here. While Dreadnought has a slower introductory chapter or two, necessary in order to introduce the reader to Mercy Lynch, after that things pick up and never slow down. Whereas Boneshaker was a sedentary novel, staying fixed in Seattle, Dreadnought is a rapid-paced tour of the rest of the nation. While we get tastes of how the various territories and states of the are being effected by the war the real focus of the novel is the indomitable, confident, and brash Mercy Lynch.
From the moment she steels herself after her single afternoon off to mourn the death of her husband and jumps right back into work the indicators that Mercy is something special are there. Mercy is at her best, if you pardon the cliché, when the going gets rough. After the airship she is on unintentionally lands amidst the Union/Confederacy battle line Mercy easily seizes control of the situation. Patching up wounded passengers and crew and maintaining a cool, commanding composure where the weaker menfolk lose their heads. Countless times throughout the course of Dreadnought, Mercy demonstrates more grit and gumption than you could ever hope for.
As I mentioned Dreadnought lets Priest give something of a brief tour of the countries and territories of North America and lets her explore the relationships between these places in an interesting way. For example the Republic of Texas is “neutral,” except that it is supplying weapons to the Confederacy. In addition the introduction of Texas allows Priest to increase the available technology of this alt-history America. The use of refined petroleum in the form of diesel, provided by the Republic of Texas, is a neat touch that allows for some horrific and fascinating uses of technology. The titular train, the Dreadnought, in particular becomes the means through which Priest reveals the desperation both sides face in the still ongoing Civil War. The Dreadnought, a Union war train, carrying mysterious cargo west remains under constant assault despite its fearsome reputation; the very fact of its mission combined with the fury and incessant nature of the Confederate pursuit indicative of the strained resources on both sides of the war.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Clockwork Century novels is the fact that while they are related, through both setting and overlapping characters, is that there does not seem to be an overarching plot. This is more a series in the old school sense of the word, novels taking in place in the same world but standing independent of one another. At least so far. Boneshaker, Dreadnought, and the novella Clementine can all be enjoyed without having read any of the others. It’s sort of refreshing in a genre so in love with idea of series. I’m not sure but with the way Dreadnought works out there is a certain sense of things coming together but it might be I’m just making too much of the plot elements and characters that come together towards the novels end.
Whether you are a steampunk fan or not Dreadnought is adventure fiction of the highest caliber. Thrilling chases, monstrous contraptions, and nail-biting gunfights abound and through it all the rock that is Mercy Lynch keeps readers, and the people around her, grounded. From slow and subtle to fast and furious Cherie Priest is an author that has proven time and again that she can do it all. I don’t where the Clockwork Century is going but it sure is one hell of a ride and I’ll definitely be on board next time, so should you.