A kind reader recently sent me a copy of Cherie Priest's steampunk novel Boneshaker. Very much a penny dreadful, the book achieves a realistic but somewhat dreamlike setting, in which the U. S. Civil War has stretched on and on and the farthest-flung territories of the Union have yet to achieve statehood, which technology has marched on, though down paths different to the ones they actually took: "It is 1880. The American Civil War has raged for nearly two decades, driving technology in strange and terrible directions."
The setting is considerably larger than the book, so it was no surprise to discover it is part of Ms. Priest's Clockwork Century, a trilogy with a side dish (free reading!) so far, and probably more to come.
I enjoyed it. She manages deft twists on a number of 19th-Century literary stereotypes, a plot convoluted enough for an entire season of television (h'mm, fainter praise that I'd intended) and a satisfying resolution.
Some of my other friendly readers expressed a little disappointment at the book -- no, I'm mischaracterizing the reaction: they wanted it to be bigger than it is. That's understandable; if you just wrapped up Stephenson's Baroque Cycle or suchlike, this book is liable to sweep you up...and set you back down gently. Character development is understated (with excellent reason in one case) and the reader spends a lot of time meeting the setting and a colorful supporting cast. It's a fascinating setting and a well-drawn cast, however, and as the first in a shared-background series with considerable character overlap, I thought it held up well. The horror could probably be more horrible (what, zombies per se aren't bad enough?) -- what keeps it from being so is not authorial squeamishness but characters more than equal to the situations in which they are put. I like that; I enjoy competent people in fiction.
It's good work, in some ways like early Terry Pratchett: there's a lot more we haven't yet seen. I'm looking forward to it. Clementine, the second book set in the Clockwork Century, is between printings (Amazon says "soon"). Dreadnought, book three, will be out at the end of September.
As ever, if you're interested, please follow the link at Tam's to Amazon to order: at no extra cost to you, the crazy lady who lives in my attic benefits!
1. I am amused at how rarely which civil war is specified, particularly in factual writing before the reader's been given sufficient context to be certain; caught unawares, I will spend a few moments trying to remember if Phillip Sheridan was on Oliver Cromwell's side or not, and why either one of them would have been in South America.
2. Introduction to Tanglefoot, at http://subterraneanpress.com/index.php/magazine/fall-2008/fiction-tanglefoot-a-story-of-the-clockwork-century-by-cherie-priest/
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