Author: Cherie Priest
Dreadnought is the third installment in Cherie Priest’s popular Clockwork Century series. The series is textbook steam punk, set in a world where the civil war raged on for another 20 years, where oil was discovered decades ahead of schedule and where zombifying poison gasses occasionally seep out of the ground in the Pacific Northwest.
Nurse Mercy Lynch is busy tending war wounded in a Virginia hospital when she learns of both her husband’s death and her estranged father’s dying wish to see her one last time. Mercy sets forth on a cross country trip by boat, dirigible, and trains, most notably the Union war-engine, the Dreadnought. Cherie Priest gives the reader many fearsome descriptions of the titular engine. For all the legend surrounding it, the Dreadnought seems to provide Mercy and her fellow passengers little protection. In fact, it seems to make them more of a target for raiders, spies and the Southern army.
While I realize that Dreadn0ught is a work of fiction, fantasy fiction at that, I was bothered by the key historical revision of this world: the South voluntarily freed their slaves and offered them land, just the same as white settlers. This revision doesn’t sit quite right with me. It treads the line of diminishing the cultural and historical impact of the real event and glosses over the cruelties perpetrated on an enslaved people. It’s damn convenient for Priest, who dodges the hurdle of creating sympathetic, pro-slavery Southern characters. In the world of Dreadn0ught, no one seems to know what the Civil War is about anymore, they just fight and steer clear of unpleasant political ideals.
Historical quibbles aside, Priest’s previous books have been real page turners, filled with well-drawn characters, engaging locations and actual conflict. Dreadnought is missing many of the ingredients that made the previous books in the series a success, leaving it a story with a lot of machines and gunsmoke, but not much impact.