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Review: Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest's loose sequel to Boneshaker, one of the two steampunk novels nominated for the 2010 Hugo Award, is of a like calibre and set in the same continuity; indeed, it follows closely on the wake of the events in Boneshaker, though they are only tied together at the very end of the novel.

Dreadnought follows Mercy Lynch, a nurse with the Conferederates, in her travels to the Washington Territory after the news of the death of her husband and her father being severely ill - this involves the steely determination characteristic of Priest's female characters, it seems, especially those who are the focus of the Clockwork Century sequence.  Lynch is very much a competent, able woman, knowing her own mind and her own aims and determined to achieve them; but she's also a very human character, affected and moved by the events around her, swept up in larger concerns than her own.  The other characters are also strongly drawn, especially the non-United States Army figures of Horatio Korman and the two Mexican inspectors; they are very vivid, carefully portrayed and wonderfully lifelike in their intensity and humanity.

The setting is, like Boneshaker, a steampunk one mixed with zombies (though the latter play a much more background role in this novel); however, Priest's choice to take Lynch across North America allows her to explore a far wider area of the setting, giving us a picture of the Confederate South and United States North as well as the Western territories beyond the limited area of Seattle; the alternative-history elements in this portrayal and setting are interesting, thought-provoking and at times wishful, but Priest doesn't skirt the negatives of the Confederacy or the racism of the North - her honesty in addressing the issues is quite impressive.

The plot's pretty good; what looks at the start to be little more than an adventure novel becomes something with political intrigue, military history, war novel, and good old train heist elements; indeed, perhaps this novel ties Firefly to steampunk more than anything else simply through shared style and ethos.  It's a good, fast moving plot; it races along keeping the reader's interest with turns, twists and changes of setting regularly, avoiding becoming formulaic or falling into the Tolkeinian trap of focusing overlong on the minutiae of Lynch's journey.

Overall, then, Dreadnought is an excellent novel and a stunning followup to Boneshaker, blasting it's predecessor out of the water and really making Priest's talent shine through.

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