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REVIEW: Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

REVIEW SUMMARY: For reader’s looking for something new in an established setting, Dreadnought has a lot to offer.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The adventures of Mercy Lynch, a Civil War Nurse who travels across a war-torn America to reconnect with her estranged father.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Relentless action sequences; interesting alternate history world building; good depiction of life during the Civil War.
CONS: Anyone waiting for the zombie and steampunk tropes will find that they take a long time to materialize.
BOTTOM LINE: Although a sequel, the book stands quite nicely on its own.


Writing Dreadnought must have been a daunting task. Cherie Priest’s new novel is set in the same steampunk/zombie setting as last year’s well-received Boneshaker, which went on to be a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Boneshaker did something admirable: it masterfully balanced a combination of genres that are usually paired together only as humorous or romantic thought-experiments. It’s a tough act to follow because there are several directions a follow-up novel can take. If you attempt to repeat the same formula, you risk typecasting (despite the fact that Priest has written several other novels having nothing to do with steampunk or zombies), or worse, failing to succeed where you have succeeded before. Yet if you stray too far from the well-received formula, you risk alienating your built-in audience. Dreadnought sits closer to the latter approach.

At the time the events of Boneshaker are unfolding in Western America, the rest of the country is involved in a Civil War and, communication being what it is at that time, those events go largely unnoticed. So there is no trepidation whatsoever on the part of Mercy Lynch to travel to what readers know to be the zombie-occupied city of Seattle. Mercy, a nurse in Virginia, receives word that her husband has died in the war. Shortly after, she also receives word that her birth father is gravely ill and wants to see her again. Having little to keep her in Virginia, Mercy undertakes the arduous task of traveling across the war-torn country to see her father.

For readers looking for more Boneshaker-like steampunk/zombie action, there’s more promise than product. This is not a story about Mercy fighting zombies. This is the story of her journey which, to be clear, proves adventurous is other ways. Dreadnought is a “road novel” — albeit a road is travelled by airship, riverboat and train — that is only incidentally adorned with steampunk and zombie dressing. Although there are ties to the events of the Boneshaker, Dreadnought is primarly a period adventure novel that leans heavily on the wartime setting and the resulting feelings of animosity between the Union and the Rebels. As Mercy (herself a Southerner) travels abroad (pretending to be a Northerner) there is ample opportunity for the author to depict the pseudo-historical picture of life in America. (Priest is clear about any inaccuracies with real-world history.) There is also time to throw in some action and intrigue as well. The large majority of Mercy’s trip takes place on the mighty Dreadnought, a Union train powered by both steam and diesel fuel. Suspense is built up and action is dispensed as the train is besieged by thieves from without and by a spy from within. The focus of their attention is on a pair of mysterious train cars, the contents of which are suspect. Although there are zombie hints and glimpses along the way, they are from a relatively safe distance. It isn’t until the final parts of the book that that particular payoff begins. Similarly with the steampunk: at one point, Mercy hears steampunk mechs in the distance, but we don’t get to see them. [UPDATE: This is an inaccurate example, as was kindly pointed out to me.] Thus anyone waiting for the zombie and steampunk tropes will find that they take a long time to materialize.

But for reader’s looking for something new in the same setting, Dreadnought has a lot to offer, like the alternate history world building, Mercy’s personal journey, the intrigue on board Dreadnought, and the relentless, well-choreographed action scenes for which Mercy seems to be a magnet. Being a nurse during a war means there’s plenty for her to do, of course. But she’s not just tending to wounded; the gun-toting Mercy isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty with what needs to be done. She meets plenty of well-drawn character, too: the Texas Ranger who is similarly looked down upon by the Northerners; a Mexican general who is investigating the strange disappearance of fellow soldiers; the scientist who possessively babysits the last train car; and several other passengers each with stories of their own. From that perspective, Dreadnought avoids sequelitis and stands quite nicely on its own.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

3 Comments on REVIEW: Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

  1. This comment has nothing to do with your review.  I’m just amused by the fact that Google puts up a display ad for Zombies vs. Plants every time you do a review that mentions Zombies.  Did you actually plan that or is that all Google?

  2. That’s google’s doing.  It triggers off words found on the page.

  3. Got it.  Of course, as soon as I posted that question the ad changed to a PayPal one.  I’m a bit curious what about your review caused Google to decide on that but oh well, I guess some questions are better left unanswered.

    Thanks as always for the fun reviews and reading material.

    Gal

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