Tuesday, August 24, 2010


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[1] 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."[2]

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/


Joseph said...

Steampunk and zombies?? That's a must read....

Themadlemming said...

Sounds a bit like the Deadlands RPG, horror, steampunk,and western all rolled together with the American Civil War still going 15 years too long.

Stretch said...

I avoid confusion about which Civil War by using the phrases "War of Northern Aggression" or "Mr. Lincoln's War."
*pulls cover over foxhole*
*awaits incoming*

Tam said...


"When the North invaded America" ;)

Stingray said...

"however, and as the first in a shared-background series with considerable character overlap,"

This does address some of the shortcomings I thought the book held, as I didn't realize there was a larger universe at work. I saw "Steampunk and zombies? Good enough!" and away I went without checking much beyond finding page 1. A separate concern, however, remains that the surprise/twist at the end didn't come as such for me. It wasn't as bad as Preston/Child's "Brimstone," where on page four or so I turned to LabRat (who read it before me) and said "He did it with a {spoiler}, didn't he," but the setup left me rather unsurprised except for one or two minor and unimportant details of the scene.

I agree completely that characters competent to their situations are desirable in any story, but I felt the source of this competence was a bit vague in several points- chalk that up to the "bigger universe" thing above. That said, good chunks read like the book was done with video game logic. "Ok, we finished the 'This Is A World Of Hurt' introduction, let's go to the 'Rickety Jumping Puzzle' area" or "We go here because that's where we go next- motivation shaky, but let's go."

Lastly, and this is I freely admit a very trivial nitpick, I could've stood a bit more focus on the gadgetry. I don't need technical schematics or Clancy-level technoporn, but "yeah, my hand needs a tuneup" left me a little unsatisfied and looking for more. Again, could be coming in the rest of the world.

I still didn't dislike the book, and I'm willing to give the rest of the oeuvre a shot, but those are the points that kept me from pimping it to people.

Roberta X said...

I agree about the weaknesses, but I felt most of them could be addressed easily enough -- and having myself faced the challenge of getting characters from A to B while building background, I'm a bit more tolerant than I once was.

It was a pretty consistent world; the only thing that lept out at me was the fast-cooking soupmix, an unexplained anachronism as anyone as fond of 15-bean soup from the dry mix as I am is well aware.

LabRat said...

To my mild pique, food science is somewhere on that part of the totem pole that is buried in the ground when it comes to technobabble writers make any attempt to get right.


Note to self: begin food-science-porn science fiction career. Attempt to come up with bracing plot hinging on an obscure fact about milk pasteurization.