Well, this is a change. After plodding through the meticulously recreated (in military terms at least) 19th-century of the Sharpe books, Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought comes as quite a different flavour, to say the least. It’s a far more free-wheeling, unashamedly fun take on the 19th century that even apologises on its opening pages for not really giving a shit about history. Right off the bat, we’re warned that we’ll be encountering zombies, a twenty-year American civil war, and all manner of other strange stuff.
See, Priest is part of a wave of writers who write very deliberate steampunk. Unlike the founding writers, who were cautiously feeling their way into terra incognita and unwittingly creating a new genre, Priest and her ilk know exactly what they and their readers now expect from a ‘steampunk’ novel. These writers are light on the history (alternate or otherwise) and heavy on the zepplins and men with brass goggles. The pseudo-Victoriana setting is often used as a backdrop for fantastic adventures rather than as a study of what might have been. All of which is perfectly acceptable, if the writer is any good. And Priest is pretty damn good.
Mercy Lynch is a nurse at a Confederate hospital. When she finds out that her Yankee husband has died in a prisoner-of-war camp, she decides to pack in her job and travel across the country from Virginia to far-off Washington State to see her ailing father before he croaks. Of course, this being an alternate, steampunk 19th century America, her trip involves airships, feuding steam-powered automatons, and armoured train engines built like battleships. This part of the book is tremendous fun; it reads almost like a road trip novel set in a world slightly askew from our own. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed crossing continents will get a little buzz every time Mercy pulls into one of her many stops Mercy is a fun protagonist, she’s a professional and level-headed woman. Her independence as she moves about the country, and the degree to which most characters accept it, might strike a little bit of a false note for anyone who knows a bit about the real attitudes of the 19 century, but this is not a big barrier to enjoying the book. It is an alternate reality, after all, so I’m willing to suspend my disbelief a little! Mercy meets a lot of characters as she travels, most of whom don’t stick around long enough to affect the plot much. This kind of thing does annoy some readers, but I found it added to the ‘road trip’ feel of the book, and added a real sense that anything could happen next.
Priest doesn’t really go to town with the steampunk touches: apart from a few uses of improved technology and machinery, the setting is still a recognisably Victorian one. Most of these changes are required to drive the plot- in particular the battle-engine Dreadnought, which ferries Mercy out into the wild, unincorporated west where the second half of the book takes place. Here, unfortunately, the fun pace of the earlier chapters drops, and Mercy’s train seems to drag quite a bit. Other small issues niggle too: the earlier hype about the train’s feared battle prowess seems to be forgotten as the Dreadnought is attacked by a paltry group of Confederate raiders who manage to cause the train’s soldiers some real worry. I thought this was the pride of the Union army, yet it seems to have real trouble brushing off some yahoos on horses!
Though there are definitely pacing issues with the second half of the book, it’s Priest’s smooth prose style and likeable characters that kept me reading. Relatively late in the proceedings, we even get an interesting insight into the politics of this America, and its relationship with the independent state of Texas and its southern neighbour Mexico. I’d definitely have appreciated a little more of this.
My final criticism of the book concerns its finale. The plot slowly builds to a ‘revelation’ that is not only obvious to anyone over the age of five, but also features elements that have been massively over-represented in media recently. To be blunt, won’t everyone just get over zombies already?
All that said, I did enjoy Dreadnought and will probably pick up the other books in the series at some time.