This book is a loose “sequel” to Priest’s Boneshaker, meaning it can be read on its own and the characters only intersect at one point in the story. This book is quite different to Boneshaker in tone, pacing and story. I enjoyed both books greatly. Priest is a strong writer, with vivid description, creativity and thoughtful prose. Boneshaker didn’t always hang together for me plot-wise — Priest never adequately explains why people are willing to live under Seattle wearing gas masks and surrounded by zombies, for example — but it was still a fun book to read.
It’s easy to see the steampunk genre as a little trite and overdone. I’ll admit the books all look pretty much the same, although I really like the cover art on this one. If you watch The Guild, I loved their send-up of steampunk and its fans… but then again they make fun of everything. Although truly, a genre based around dirigibles and tiny hats does seem a little silly.
That said, this book isn’t steampunk as you’re used to it. It’s really a fantastic Civil War/Western America journey story. The book tells the story of Mercy Lynch, a Red Cross nurse in Richmond, Virginia during the later years of the Civil War. Mercy receives a telegram from her father, who abandoned her during childhood. Her father is dying and wants to see her one last time; unfortunately, he’s all the way in Tacoma, Washington, a journey of many weeks and of considerable danger and expense. A soldier convinces Mercy she might regret it if she doesn’t go, so she packs up her things and her medical supplies, and embarks on the journey.
Her journey will involve airships, trains, carts and battlefields and is fraught with disaster at every turn. It’s written as a classic journey tale – along the way, Mercy meets exciting people, solves mysteries, and ultimately learns to stand on her own two feet and becomes a stronger human being.
Cherie Priest makes this very simple plot structure work. The book feels original and exciting at every turn. While there are parts that drag a little, like when Mercy has to find hotels, buy tickets, wait at railway stations, etc. those are few. And I like a book with a slightly slower pace than most paranormal books – I want character development, not just non-stop action. So I like the slightly slower view through Mercy’s eyes of her surroundings and situations. This is definitely a more linear, slower-paced book than Boneshaker, and that’s okay. There’s still plenty of action and adventure throughout.
I also liked that this book was less about the supernatural and more about the historical setting and Mercy’s journey. Dreadnought is the name of a train that has been defensively armed as a Civil War weapon. You do get zombies in this book, but most of the book is about Civil War strategy. Mercy travels from place to place, from Virginia to Tennessee to Missouri to Utah to Washington. Priest puts a lot of detail into describing each of these places in the late 19th century – which is not to say I expect much historical accuracy from this book. It’s just fun to read what these cities might have been like at the time.
I think Mercy’s character could have been fleshed out a lot more, especially given how much time she has to reflect during her journey. We learn very little about her marriage and how she became a nurse, for example. She’s a strong character and an admirable one. We just don’t learn as much as we could have about her fears, desires, and weaknesses.
It’s not literature. But all things considered, a good, enjoyable read.