Women in Steampunk 2: Dreadnought

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.

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12 Responses to “Women in Steampunk 2: Dreadnought”

  1. I LOVED Dreadnought, as much as I loved Boneshaker. Gender is treated so well in it, as is race. I keep meaning to write my review of it, but oh man, everytime I try I keep squeeing over how much I love it and getting over-excited about the next book, Clementine, which will have a PoC main character (*squeeeeeeeeeee*).

  2. What about all the lovely and varied female characters in the Hungry City Chronicles? Hester Shaw, Wren Natworthy, Oenone Zero, Anna Fang, Freya Rasmussen, and Cynthia Twite. These women are strong and gentle, warriors and lovers, rebels, traitors to their own, pilots, librarians. But, above all, they are faceted, they are deep, and they are real. They have weaknesses and they have flaws, but they have morals, skills, and goals, too. They are satisfying in every sense.

  3. One of the difficulties with women in steampunk that’s grounded in an alternative history that doesn’t diverge too far from the 19th century is how to write heroines that do all the good stuff without simply grafting a 21st century woman into a retro setting. (I’m particularly cranky about this because I did my grad work on the Victorian novel and one of my concentrations was feminist crit.) Priest does this very well, through her worldbuilding as well as circumstances that keep it credible. Carriger, too, in a very different world.

    As a member of the larger general public forced to wait for Dreadnought ’til publication date . . . *so* looking forward to it!

  4. Stina: I’d actually never heard of that one! I’ll definitely look into it, thanks for the recommendation.

  5. Stina: I was considering getting that (Reeve’s outburst at his steampunk audience kinda knocked it off my priority list). Is the series finished? I’m curious now.

  6. […] Steampunk Magazine tackles Dreadnought – Via friendly feminist critique. Thanks a bunch for the review! I’m glad the reader enjoyed the book, and I’m glad to see that people are starting to talk about it. […]

  7. Jha: I didn’t know about Reeve’s outburst, but I’m going to try to find out more about it. My thought on it (though I haven’t read the outburst) is likely that he doesn’t want his work to get pigeonholed. There are people out there who will or won’t read Reeve’s books because of the term “Steampunk” and without any consideration of their literary merit. He’s getting perhaps some benefits from Steampunk’s current ubiquitousness, but when that fades will his books be relegated to some subgenre corner of a used bookstore?
    I think it’s a very difficult thing. Steampunk is very popular right now – which is great, because it’s awesome – but, I think we can all agree, that its presence in the pop-culture mind will likely be fleeting and the majority of people will more on to some other genre. Wells and Lovecraft are considered classics for a reason and I would never argue that Steampunk aesthetic (or any speculative fiction trope) will disappear completely.

    The quartet has completed and I found them very compelling books. There are also prequel books (of which I’ve only read one, Fever Crumb). Check them out. I don’t think that Reeve can argue that they are not Steampunk in at least a few ways – but, he’s right, they are also post-apocalyptic, political, family dramas. To call them one thing to the exclusion of all potential others is perhaps what Reeve fears.

  8. Stina: It’s perfectly understandable to fear being pigeonholed; it’s quite another thing to castigate a particular subset of your audience that’s in part responsible for making your books successful, you know? He took the rant down, and I don’t think the caches have it anymore. But it was quite hypocritical to read.

  9. @Stina: I’ve read the Hungry City Chronicles (although I thought it was called the Mortal Engines Quartet) and I absolutely loved it! I didn’t know it was Steampunk though. I read it a few years ago and didn’t realise that there was this whole subculture thing. I completely agree that the women in that series are so strong and wonderful. I love Hester Shaw and her daughter (I can’t remember her name now). I should reread that series. I definitely did not hear about his outburst. It is Steampunk in so many ways. Anyways, @SteampunkMagazine, Dreadnought sounds really good and I think I’ll check it out when September 28th comes around. Thanks for the recommendation.

  10. I am waiting with bated breath for the release of Dreadnought. I picked up Boneshaker due to the review on Steampunk Magazine and while I have not yet finished it, I love it so far!! I have been looking for Clementine but every book site I have checked says it is sold out. Does anyone know if it will be released again?

  11. Hey this was a great article. What gave you the idea to write it? I was looking for a way to subscribe but couldn’t see one? Thanks for the article, hope to hear back from you. thanks 🙂

  12. First time poster here, great idea for an article!
    I think the lack of strong female characters used to be a similar problem in the fantasy novels I read back in the 80’s, and I have always looked for them in the novels I read because, to me, they make a story so much more realistic.
    There are plenty of strong female protagonists in that genre these days – could always do with more though!
    I’m very new to Steampunk, and very intrigued by it all.
    Does anyone have a few suggestions on authors who stock more than a generic ‘woman’ character in their books?
    Will check out Philip Reeve as suggested upthread…

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