Dreadnought, I can only hope that I'll be able to celebrate a few more birthdays with one of her books tucked under my arm.
"Dreadnought" is a loose sequel to Priest's last book "Boneshaker," with the characters of the previous installment only showing up as we near the end if this chapter. Both books take place during the Civil War, though they are written in an alternative history in which both steampunk mechanicals and zombies exist. While the story in "Boneshaker" used the Civil War conflict as a fringe element to its story, "Dreadnought" plunks its characters right in the middle of the bloody conflict.
Mercy Lynch is a nurse at a Confederate hospital in Richmond Virginia when Clara Barton (the founder of the Red Cross) comes with the news that Mercy's husband, who happens to have been fighting for the Union, has died in POW camp. Distraught, but too busy to be allowed to grieve, Mercy has no other plan than to keep on patching together the young men who survive long enough to end up on her care. But when word comes that her long absent father has become ill, and may not live, Mercy decides to undertake the incredibly dangerous cross-country journey to the West Coast to be reunited with her father.
The only way to get across the war-torn countryside is by dirigible and boat, and once Mercy crosses the Mississippi she faces the even more daunting prospect of finishing her journey on the Dreadnought; a fearsome, armored, steam-powered war engine built by the Union that happens to be her only real means of getting across country in time to see her father.
But the Dreadnought is more of a challenge than Mercy could ever have dreamed as she soon finds out that it is hauling a secret cargo that has brought it to the attention of the Confederacy -- which is bent on stopping the Dreadnought and stealing the mysterious cargo even if it means killing every civilian on board.
There is a particular genius to combining steampunk with the Wild West and it's far-and-away my favorite aspect of "Dreadnought." There's something about a corset-wearing heroine with a pair of pistols on her hip, and her earthy view of the world, that tickles my fancy. Combined with the fast-paced setting of a speeding train, and a few zombies thrown in, and it's hard to go wrong.
Yet, as good as the setting is, Priest really shines when it comes to creating her lead characters. Mercy Lynch is everything you'd hope for in a leading-lady from the Old West. She's smart and has just the right amount of sass to deal with the upper-crust as well as a curmudgeonly Texas Ranger. She inserts herself into the thick of things because she's the most capable person in the room-- though it should be noted that her curiosity also gets her into a fair amount of trouble. Mercy is also our eyes into a world of shifting values and obvious racial tensions, but Priest has a deft touch that doesn't ignore any topic while still avoiding any kind of preachiness.
If I have any critique of "Dreadnought" (and I do have to give a slight edge to "Boneshaker" as the better book of the two) it's that the steampunk elements are not prominent enough throughout the book. The early chapters have just enough to keep the idea afloat with some unique war machines and the requisite trip in an airship, but the descriptions are not terribly detailed. The Dreadnought is intended to be the centerpiece of steampunk machinery as far as the story goes, but trains were not particularly unusual in the Old West and simply adding some formidable armor isn't quite enough to give it a proper steampunk feel. "Boneshaker" had the smaller, more intricate gadgets involving goggles and mechanical arms and I missed the detail this time around. Additionally I think a few of the supporting characters could have benefited from fuller back-stories, but overall the narrative doesn't really suffer as the dialog is brisk and clever and easy to connect to. Priest also does a good job of continuing the storyline involving the zombies, though the progression of that story moves significantly slower (in a good way) than what I've come to expect from this particular plot device-- which I like because it isn't allowed to overwhelm the story (no pun intended).
"Dreadnought" is a worthy successor to the terrific "Boneshaker." I look forward to the continuing story of Mercy Lynch and the cast of characters that are re-introduced at the end of the book --- not to mention the great combination of the Wild West, steampunk and zombies that Priest has melded together in such a fun way. It definitely makes my list of recommended books.
4 out of 5 stars.