Review: The Clockwork Century Saga, by Cherie Priest

>>Published:

>>Boneshaker: September 2009

>>Dreadnought: September 2010

>>Ganymede: September 2011

>>Finally got around to the lot of them: October 2011

What is certain is this: On the afternoon of January 2, 1863, something appalling burst out from the basement and tore a trail of havoc from the house on Denny Hill to the central business district, and then back home again.

Few witnesses agree, and fewer still were granted a glimpse of the Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine. Its course took it under the earth and down the hills, gouging up the land beneath the luxurious homes of wealthy mariners and shipping magnates, under the muddy flats where sat the sprawling sawmill, and down along the corridors, cellars, and storage rooms of general stores, ladies’ notions shops, apothecaries, and yes… the banks

***

Seattle novelist Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels are unique amongst genre fiction. While she relies on familiar and currently overworked sci-fi and fantasy tapestries of steampunk and zombies to provide the context for her alternative universe approach to the American Civil War, she does so with restraint, never letting the presence of such tropes overwhelm the narrative of each title or the overarching story.

The story of the first book in this series focuses on Briar Wilkes, her son Zeke, and a trek into the walled city of Seattle, where a mysterious gas called the Blight—released during the Boneshaker’s underground rampage—is turning humans into the walking dead, to ascertain the innocence or guilt of Zeke’s father in the incident that doomed the city. Boneshaker is a detailed primer for Priest’s world, introducing a wide breadth of characters—merchants, bionic tavern owners, Chinamen, sky pirates, and a mad scientist—that will flesh out the narrative of each book that follows in the series.

Like most first entries in a world-building series, Boneshaker spends a fair amount of time setting the stage for not just the incursion into a quarantined and dangerous version of Seattle, where the living dead—rotters—swarm the underground like a fast-moving plague, but for Priest’s vision of an America still in flux—still at war with itself, and grappling with the technological advantages and disadvantages that have changed the face of this version of America. However, the narrative moves along at a very fast pace, never getting bogged down in the details of the world outside of Seattle’s walls, nor forgetting the importance of character in building such a world.

Briar Wilkes, protagonist of the book, is a perfect example of the strength of character that runs through the entire series. Briar is a woman publicly scorned on the other side of the wall, by those who were forced to abandon Seattle when the Boneshaker released the Blight gas, but she refuses to lay down and let others trample her or condemn her for her former husband Leviticus Blue’s criminal and socially damaging actions. As Briar tracks her son Zeke through the dead city within the walls, meeting such interesting characters as the sky pirate Andan Cly and below-surface dwelling badass Jeremiah Swakhammer, she reveals a strength that is altogether uncommon with once-upon-a-time socialites during the American Civil War.

***

Mercy said, “An engine? Like a train engine? I don’t understand.”

The blond lowered his scope and said, “The rail lines around here, the run crisscross, all over each other, every which-a-direction. We commandeered the switches and posted up our lads to keep the Yanks’ cracker line squeezed off shut. But then they brought—”

The private interrupted him. “The Dreadnought. That’s what they call it.”

“My CO said he thought the damn thing was back east, over in D.C., watching over the capital after our rally there last month. But no! Those bastards brought that unholy engine all the way out here, and it mowed us right down. They took back their line in under and hour, and now they’re pushing us back. They’re pushing us back good,” he emphasized, and drew the lenses back up to his face. “Veer us left, Mickey,” he said to the driver. “I don’t like the look of the smoke kicking up to the east.”

***

Using an extended narrative approach, Priest shifts away from the walled city of Seattle and its unfortunate occupants and moves across the country, to Richmond, Virginia and a war hospital. Mercy Lynch, nurse and daughter of Jeremiah Swakhammer, learns of two tragedies at once: the death of her husband in the war, and the potentially life-threatening injuries suffered by her father at the end of Boneshaker. Deciding, in the wake of her husband’s death, that her future is uncertain, she embarks on the cross-country trek to reunite with the father that abandoned her sixteen years prior, and to potentially forge a bond with the only family she has left.

The journey takes Mercy through air and across the land via the rails. It’s not long before she finds herself passenger on the Dreadnought—a union war engine with a nefarious reputation. Throughout the journey, much of which takes place on the Dreadnought, she meets and interacts with civilians, military men, Mexican investigators, and a Texas Ranger with whom she discovers an unexpected kinship.

Besides the obvious character links between the two books, Dreadnought expands on the world introduced in Boneskaker through a greater discussion of the war and a frank investment in characters on both sides of the battle as they are brought together, transported across the country on a machine representative of the dangers of the era when tied to the hubris of warmongers. The narrative also expands upon the concept of the rotters, as introduced in Boneskaker. Sap, a powerful hallucinogen derived from the Blight gas released in Seattle, is being experimented with as a potential weapon for the union. The disease of the walking dead begins to spread into parts beyond the Pacific Northwest, and the growth and expansion of that threat begins to reveal itself as the X-factor that may come to resolve the war, one way or another.

Mercy continues Priest’s development of incredibly strong female leads in an era that did not pay women the same respect as men. Mercy Lynch is an intelligent, resolute character who straddles the line between the two halves of the war—observant and understanding of the reasons behind the contrasting views of the country, though not condoning of their machinations.

***

“How did Texas know about it?”

Hazel nodded approvingly, as if this was a good question. “It had been made with Texian technology, and Texian machinists, so they knew it was out there somewhere. They didn’t find it, though.”

“And your people did?”

Both of the women smiled, identically and in perfect time with each other. Hazel continues. “It took three weeks of looking, but the ship was found and lifted by a group of guerrillas in the bayou… the free men of color who fight Texas and the Confederacy as best they can from the shadows. They hauled it to a different shore and hid it there, where it remains now—waiting for the right man or men to take it all the way to the ocean, where it was always meant to go. And that, Captain Cly, is the story of the Ganymede.”

***

The third in Priest’s Clockwork Century saga, Ganymede, shifts the action to New Orleans and Josephine Early—a mixed race prostitute who has established herself as a social force to be reckoned with. Josephine and her brother Deaderick are neck-deep in the recovery efforts for a machine they believe will change the course of the war for whichever side controls the beast—a submarine of tremendous firepower called the Ganymede. As many mariners have failed to pilot the Ganymede down the Mississippi and out of the reach of Southern forces, Josephine seeks another avenue and enlists the help of an old flame, the sky pirate and current lover of Briar Wilkes, Andan Cly.

Like Boneshaker and Dreadnought, Ganymede is structured loosely around a device of immeasurable destructive capacity. The devices themselves are the root of the steampunk trappings found in all of Priest’s novels—singular advancements that have altered the course of American technological history and created this alternate universe. The devices themselves, lovingly described and uncomfortably mysterious, do not detract from the strong characterization in each book, rather they serve as the linchpins around which several strong personalities revolve.

Josephine Early is an intriguing companion piece to Briar Wilkes and Mercy Lynch: another very strong individual with ambitions for survival that outweigh perceived social placement. Josephine is, at the outset, the most forthright of Priest’s protagonists. She understands the power of her sexuality and the position of influence it gives her in the community, and is unwilling to compromise any of that, regardless of the pressure put upon her by the Texas occupation of her home.

Also carrying over from previous titles, the rotters—called zombis here—have made their way to the south, continuing their spread across the continent. It feels as if Priest is setting up the Sap/Blight gas-infected to be the counterweight that will invariably push both sides together in the war. Time will tell…

Ganymede, like the other books in this series, is detailed and intricately plotted. Most pleasantly surprising is that the affectations and mannerisms of this variant steampunk Civil War-era America never feel forced or out of place. There’s enough to sell the manufactured time period while retaining a contemporary feel for the characters and their motivations.

What separates the three titles most is the differing strength of the overall story. While Boneshaker remains the most plot- and setting-driven of the three, Dreadnought is the most thought provoking, taking necessary time to investigate both sides of the war at the heart of this series, humanizing all in the process. Ganymede, on the other hand, feels lighter on plot than the other two, but more than makes up for it through Josephine Early, her brother, the girls at the boarding house she runs, and deeper insight into the history of Andan Cly, who is quickly becoming one of the more exciting characters in the Clockwork Century saga.

Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century saga could be classified as steampunk-light—offering gothic, horror, sci-fi and fantasy themes without overpowering the characters or politics at the centre of everything. The result is something that feels fresh and more intriguing than the individual parts would lead one, upon first glance, to believe.

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Clockwork Century Saga, by Cherie Priest

  1. I like the idea of reading all of these books at once and looking at them as a whole rather than looking at each one separately. I read Boneshaker back when it was released and I enjoyed it, but, it seems I may like it all better together… Especially seeing how they all sort of click into place, telling a much much much larger narrative.

    Great review!

  2. Thank you, Melissa! I've only just found out that there's another entry in the series, a second title between Boneshaker and Dreadnought titled Clementine, published and designed differently than the others in this series. Which means I am now on a hunt for this…

    (I know I could just order online, but I so enjoy the hunt)

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