Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Steampunk to kick you out of a reading rut

Cherie Priest returns to the Clockwork Century world she created in the outstanding steampunk adventure Boneshaker with a new novella, Clementine. Her characters are firmly set in an alt-history 1880s, where the Civil War has not ended and a rash of wartime technological advancements have resulted in all manner of fascinating machinery. Spinning out of Boneshaker with supporting character Croggon Beaureguard Hainey, escaped slave and now infamous sky pirate, Clementine is a standalone title which includes hot pursuit of a stolen dirigible, Pinkerton detectives, an asylum, a weapon designed to bring destruction of unparalleled power down upon the masses, and one former real life Confederate spy named Isabelle Maria Boyd. Let me just say that the inclusion of the infamous “Belle” Boyd pretty much made this former history teacher weep with sheer joy.

Hainey and his two shipmates are on the hunt of their stolen ship, now renamed Clementine by its hijackers. Boyd, recently hired by Pinkerton, has been sent on a mission funded by the Union to protect Clementine’s cargo and stop Hainey. It quickly becomes obvious to both of them that the stolen ship is carrying something of incalculable value on a mission of dire seriousness. Circumstance throws them together as they find the truth among the lies, and chase down the ship until it arrives at its final destination. Along the way another ship is hijacked, a big gun is unleashed, Boyd proves her mettle (more than once), and the fine line between crazy and sane is revealed. Plus Priest gives readers a hard look at American history with passages like these:

Hainey didn’t answer because further discussion might’ve made him look paranoid, or weak. Simeon came from another place with its own set of problems, to be sure; but he wouldn’t have understood, maybe -- how nothing on earth summoned a mob with a noose or a spray of bullets quite like a lady with an accent and problem with the way she’s been looked at.

Even a look, misinterpreted or even imagined.

Shades of Emmett Till and a thousand others reside in those words, and Priest doesn’t let you forget it. Clementine is serious adventure -- it’s exciting, edge-of-your-seat kind of action that never lets up -- but this is also the story of three black men and a white woman in a time and place where the mere idea they could be powerful people is barely tolerated, let alone celebrated. Priest knows that, and addresses it, but she doesn’t let the plot get weighed down by it. There’s a fine line here between keeping her characters moving and letting them stop and think, and just as she has done so effectively in her previous novels, the author accomplishes that balance again with great aplomb. Boyd and Hainey are people with few options left but pride, but they are not the sort to back down, let alone fade away. They will do what they have set to do, and to hell with anyone who would dare stop them.

Effective on all counts, smart and strong and written at a breakneck pace, Clementine is the best kind of fun reading. Priest gives her readers an excellent time, and adds more layers to the world she so carefully created with Boneshaker. She also gives readers characters with depth -- in particular, two memorable characters (along with an excellent supporting cast) who are so incredibly above average and unique from standard tropes that one wonders why it has taken so long for anyone to write this kind of book. The answer to that is obvious, of course -- steampunk has been waiting for Cherie Priest to arrive and take the genre by storm. How lucky for us that the wait is finally over.

[Reposted from my Bookslut column. Clementine is rumored to be out in trade paper next year - so keep you eye on Cherie's site for updates.]

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