Recently, I was bitching about the lack of satisfying female characters in steampunk literature. Mere days later, through the magical powers of Twitter, I received an answer to my rant: an advance reading copy of Cherie Priest’s new novel Dreadnought, due out on September 28th. I’d been looking forward to reading it anyway, entirely on the grounds that it starts in a steampunk version of my own home state of Virginia, so I was thrilled to have a chance to dive into it early.
It did not disappoint:
The book has all the steampunk fun one expects after the dirigibles, mechanical arms, and underground tunnels of Boneshaker. Dreadnought gives a much wider picture of Cherie Priest’s alternate history: Mercy Lynch, the main character, starts off in the South, then travels up the Mississippi and out across the Rockies by dirigible, boat, and train, providing plenty of time to see the giant battle robots employed by the Union and Confederacy, the feared battle-ready steam engines, and the mysterious disease sweeping the country.
But where Dreadnought really shines is in its characters. Its pace is more leisurely than Boneshaker: traveling from Virginia to Washington, as Mercy Lynch does, takes a long time, even with dirigibles. Since there’s not as constant a need to fight off zombies, readers get the opportunity to really see the people who inhabit this world of an endless, steam-powered Civil War. Mercy shares her journey west with an astonishing assortment of people, mostly terribly ordinary, yet still endlessly entertaining. To my personal enjoyment, all of these interactions show the racial tensions and gender disparities of Mercy’s world quite well without dwelling too much on them; it’s part of the setting and worldbuilding in a realistic fashion I appreciated.
At the center of it is Mercy Lynch herself, who is currently my favorite Steampunk heroine (Alexia Tarabotti, from Soulless, is a close second, but I digress). She’s a good Southern girl, equal parts charm and irreverence, with a matter-of-fact approach to the variety of odd situations she encounters. And though the book occasionally feels slow (for example, during days of empty train travel across the Plains), Mercy sustains the story with her sharp observations and interesting conversations, all easily imagined in an adorable Southern accent. Priest’s alternate United States is hardly a land of gender equality (unlike some steampunk worlds, which toss Victorian gender roles out the window and just keep the corsets) – but her characters deal with it in interesting ways.
My complaint with Whitechapel Gods and books like it was that, when the ordinary citizens of a steampunk world were faced with adventure, the ladies were told to go hide somewhere. In Dreadnought, the ladies wield pistols, climb on top of trains, and tend injuries, all in long skirts and petticoats, before settling in for tea and a game of cards. And really, the men are pretty cool, too. The characters are awesome characters regardless of gender without ignoring it, and the result is a lot of adorable steampunky fun.