Dreadnought by Cherie Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Dreadnought is, to a certain degree, a book about the Civil War. Mercy Lynch is a Confederate nurse working in a Virginia war hospital when she learns that her husband – who happens to have been a Union soldier – has died in a prison camp. Almost immediately after receiving this news, she receives a telegram from her long-estranged father; he’s dying in Seattle and wants to see his little girl before he dies. Concluding that she has no real reason to stay put, Mercy heads west – a woman alone on a long journey across a wartorn land.
Except, as it turns out, the Civil War’s been going on for over twenty years, with no real sign of stopping. Part of the problem is that the Union and Confederacy are engaged in an arms race, fueled in no small part by Texas and its diesel resources. Both sides have developed “walkers” (think Avatar or Return of the Jedi) and use dirigibles for air travel. Moreover, the Union has the Dreadnought – a terrifying locomotive such as has never been seen before (except perhaps in the classic slapstick western-steampunk movie venture, Wild Wild West). In her efforts to get to Washington as rapidly as possible, Mercy finds herself a passenger on the Dreadnought as it makes a mysterious trip west with a very peculiar cargo.
Oh, and it turns out that there are zombies.
The thing about Dreadnought is that it’s really very good – so good, in fact, that I’ve already recommended it to two not-at-all-interested-in-unrealistic-fiction readers.
Mercy’s character rings true, sympathetic, and appropriate both to historic sensibilities and to the quasi kickass-in-corsets ideal of steampunk. Many books in this subgenre go overboard with trying to replicate a Victorian style in their writing, but Dreadnought leans more toward the straightforward Western style and benefits from it. That plainspoken prose adds considerable versimilitude to a story that might otherwise collapse under the weight of its ridiculousness; up until the last fifty pages or so, a reader could easily forget that they weren’t reading a historically accurate tale.
Consequently, I think this book could appeal to readers even if they weren’t a fan of fantastical fiction; you don’t have to love steampunk or alternative history to get wrapped up in Mercy’s story. Although Priest’s wild West is, apparently, infested with zombies, this isn’t a “zombie book” (which is good, because I am not interested in zombie books) and you can read it without too much fear of being grossed out or horrified by the undead. I mean, they’re there, but only really in the last fifty pages, and it’s not too graphic. It’s also interesting and well-written enough to, in my opinion, bridge the genre gulf for people who might not be terribly interested in Civil War-era America. This book is many things, all of which are satisfying.
The only thing that I felt was absent – and I’m not at all sure that the story needed it – was a little bit of romantic interest. Priest kept hinting at the possibility of chemistry, but Mercy never takes the bait. Maybe that’s only appropriate, given her recent widowing. I also kept expecting a dramatic development about another female traveler on the Dreadnought, but if that development is coming, it must be coming in another book.
Two more things I liked about this book: Although it is the third in a series, it works as a standalone novel (obviously, since I got halfway through the book before realizing that it was in a series at all). And it’s printed in brown ink on creamy paper. How cool is that?
Overall, as long as the zombies don’t take too much of a central role, I’m excited to read more of the books in this series and would recommend Dreadnought in particular to anyone who likes Civil War fiction, steampunk, adventure, interesting female protagonists, or good literary diversions.
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