This delightful adventure, the second in Priest’s Clockwork Century series (steampunk zombies, yo!), is set during the same era as the first book, Boneshaker, but takes us all the way across the country to Richmond, Virginia. There, a nurse at a Confederate hospital, Mercy Swakhammer, learns in a single day both that her husband has been killed in Andersonville, and that her estranged father is on his deathbed in Seattle, Washington and desperately wants to see her.
Reeling from the loss of her husband of only a few months, Mercy decides to quit her job at the hospital and set out on the long journey to the Pacific Northwest, in the hopes she might get to talk to her dad one last time before he dies.
The first part of her trek involves an overly-exciting ride on an airship (can’t have a steampunk novel without a Zeppelin, after all), one that takes the passengers and crew right into the middle of a Civil War battle. But it’s the second part that really makes the trip an adventure. As it turns out, the only train going to the Northwest is the infamous Union battle train the Dreadnought. And not only will Mercy have to hide her identity as a Rebel on board, but the train features a mysterious caboose with all its windows blackened, a dodgy scientist so protective of that mysterious car he’s willing to shoot anyone who goes near it, and a whole host of Confederate soldiers hot on the Dreadnought’s tail, having heard a rumor the train is packed with bars of gold.
While I will confess that I found sections of this novel a bit of a slog, once Mercy boards that train, the story becomes one a hell of a ride. The scenes that featured train-vs.-train shoot-outs were so exciting I kept staying up WELL past my bedtime to push through them, and I appreciated that while the sap-infected zombies from Boneshaker played a role in this story as well, it was a fairly minimal one. Zombies are fun, sure, but they can be easily overdone, and this novel just wasn’t really about them — it was about a young woman on a dangerous journey, and the people she encounters on her way (both helpful and not). A young woman who has, I might add, three times the balls of half the men she meets (wait, what? Oh, you do the math).
I’ve had a soft spot for novels set during the Civil War ever since becoming infatuated with William Faulkner when I was a kid, and though this series is science fiction (for one thing, the Civil War in the Clockwork Century has been going on for decades), the setting still feels very realistic and alive to me, packed with all the complexities inherent in any tale about a warring nation.
Priest may not a brilliant writer — I’ll give you naysayers that much — but she’s a damn fine storyteller, and her characters have a way of really sticking with me after all is said and done. Can’t wait for the next book in this series, which I hope will continue to feature Mercy in a starring role. I loved her. LOVED HER. (And thanks again to my bookseller friend Steve, who introduced me to this series last year and continues to supply me with autographed Priest novels every time a new one comes out! With friends like that, who needs libraries? Wait, pretend I didn’t actually just say that.)