It’s hard to mention the term Steampunk without also mentioning Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, an alternate history of the United States, featuring all of the bells and whistles that comes with the territory. The first novel, Boneshaker, was well received, as was the short novella, Clementine, set shortly after the events of the first book, while the latest entry in the series (there are two more planned), Dreadnought, picks up the story across the country and helps to flesh out Priest’s strange alternate world. An interesting follow-up to Boneshaker, Dreadnought never quite reaches the same heights that its predecessor reached, nor does it quite feel as unique. As such, Priest brings out new elements to the Civil War only hinted at in the previous books, and tells a fun story, one that is sure to be popular with the steampunk crowd.
Following Mercy Lynch, a nurse stationed in a confederate war hospital in Virginia, Dreadnought is set in the heart of the lengthened American Civil War. Lynch is summoned away by her father, Jeremiah Swakhammer, (careful readers will remember the name from Boneshaker). What happens next is a journey for Lynch that she could never have expected. An alternate title for this book could easily have been Airships, Barges and Locomotives, for her journey across the country covers not only ground, but the staples of the steampunk movement. Along the way, a number of storylines begin to form and collide as the war effort goes forward. A Texas Ranger is on the hunt for a missing Mexican army, while a Union scientist harbors a hidden and deadly cargo onboard the Dreadnought, a Union train bound for the west on a mysterious mission. As Lynch finds herself at the center of the conflict, we’re treated to a spectacle of action and movement as she makes her way across the continent to her dying father.
At points, Dreadnought is very good, particularly once things get moving west, when the titular Dreadnought becomes the main setting and as story elements begin to collide. Each storyline has their own main elements running forward and Priest has constructed a fascinating tale of the war without being set in the war, further telling the story of two sides that fail to quit fighting.
At the same time, however, Dreadnought proved to be a frustrating read as exposition took over in the beginning and end, and as the story seemed to merely drift along the rail road tracks to each major scene, with a host of forgettable characters to fill in the blanks. Where Boneshaker left me unable to put the book down, Dreadnought seems to be the sophomore slump (being the second full novel in the series, not the author’s second novel or story within The Clockwork Century) in the series.
Part of this might stem from the very nature of the book, spread out over a vast continent, with almost too much to look at: there’s a short, tantalizing section on the actions of the Civil War, then onto the fragmented nature of the country, then the native Americans, mad scientists, Texas Rangers and zombies. As a result, the main action takes its time to gather momentum. But, when it does, the book (forgive me) picks up steam and becomes an engrossing read that lives up to the best elements of its predecessors before ending quietly with a quick link to Boneshaker that serves well as an epilogue.
Steampunk has hit some major counter arguments lately from a couple of authors, making some pointed arguments that The Clockwork Century, nor Dreadnought are able to adequately answer. The main point that kept running through my mind during all of the stories was how the Civil War would be approached, and after reading through Dreadnought, it seems that there’s a certain level of the Southern inevitable cause that seems to have survived since the 1870s when it first originated: the South was destined to lose, but it fought the better fight. Thrust into the heat of the Civil War, the book goes in this direction, and as a historian, it’s a little frustrating to see such a revisionist vision come out. (This isn’t to say that Mrs. Priest is a diehard revisionist: just that her book seems to go in that direction)
Whatever the historical feelings are when it comes to this story, Charles Stross brings up a very good point with his own rant about Steampunk: namely that the genre seems far too rosy and nostalgic for the staples of Steampunk: the corsets, the goggles, brass and strange trappings that characterize the movement. Here, the south seems to have largely given up an element of bloody racism, lone women are free to run around the country largely without incident, and there’s really no feeling of the absolute brutality and dark nature that characterized this era of history. While Stross’s arguments miss elements of how history played out in the United States, there are still some relevant points. I would rather have this rather fantastic, romanticized past rather than the actual one, but when compared to our true past, this version feels somewhat hollow.
Keeping in mind that this is an element of historical fiction, aimed towards entertainment, these arguments are somewhat petty in and of themselves: there is no expectation of historical accuracy, especially when there is talk of a zombie army running around Utah, eating the Mormons who have settled there, but it feels like there is an incredible opportunity missed by not setting a story that looks to something besides a romantic version of the past. The reasons for not doing so are pretty clear: when marketing a product that you want to sell, you don’t really want to highlight all of the nasty or dirty elements, much as Apple doesn’t want to highlight the group of Foxxconn workers who committed suicide while building the ever popular iProducts that have become so common play. However, by ignoring these elements, Priest’s vision of steampunk is far more polished and perfect, which calls attention to itself. But, that’s okay.
Steampunk is a genre that I’ve sought to avoid as much as possible, but Priest’s alternative vision in Dreadnought, no matter how polished, is a fun and exciting story that stands up well within her series, and it gives me no small amount of hope that even with a flood of material, there are still some authors who strive to tell a good story, rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon to make a quick buck off of an audience who’s looking the right way at the right time. Dreadnought is a good book – not a great one – that holds no pretense as to what it is supposed to be, and doesn’t overstep its bounds. For that reason alone, it’s worth picking up and reading. Steampunk itself might be a flawed creation, but so long as Priest stands at the front, I have an amount of faith that there will still be some good stories to be told within it.