Ganymede, the fourth installment in Priest's Clockwork Century series, may well mark a turning point in the setting of the series, both for Seattle and for the wider world.  Building on events in Dreadnought and Boneshaker, with possibly a reference to Clementine in there at the beginning.  Our main characters are the smuggler (or pirate, as the term seems to be in the Clockwork Century) Andan Cly and New Orleans madame Josephine Early, with Texas Ranger Horatio Korman reappearing along with Cly's crew.

The plot of Ganymede is relatively simple; Josephine, an old flame of Cly's, needs to hire him in order to get the submarine Ganymede to Union forces near New Orleans, which is held by the Republic of Texas on behalf of the Confederacy.  Complications, naturally, ensue, and there are two subplots; one to do with Cly's burgeoning relationship with Briar Wilkes, hero of Boneshaker, and his resultant plans to settle in Seattle, and the other to do with the increasing menace of the zombis in New Orleans - those affected by the gas found in Seattle; and it's this plot which returns Ranger Korman to the fray, trying to prove to his Texas superiors that the zombies are real.  The plot is mixed; there are a number of points when it moves fast, although those can move towards repetitiveness - and a certain uneventful repetitiveness too, both in the faster and slower-moving portions.  However, the faster moments are well-placed and well-paced, without losing focus or control, and with a certain stylish power to them; and the slower moments are also well-written, the romantic elements thoughtful and not overplayed, the more suspenseful moments not overblown or overplayed but adding a lot to the narrative.  The subplots don't always play the obvious role - the zombis especially being a matter of convenience, not logic, in their use, and some of the references to Cly's wish to settle down feel gratuitous, but overall it works well, and the Ganymede's role in the novel is well controlled, to bring multiple elements together.

The characters of Ganymede are perhaps the strongest point of the novel; Ranger Korman, Andan Cly and his crew we know, but Josephine Early and her employees are new, as is her brother Deaderick; and, unsurprisingly, they're all excellent characters.  Josephine continues the line of strong women that Priest seems to like (alongside the Clockwork Century, each installment of which has a strong female hero leading the case, we have Eden Moore and the Cheshire Red Reports series, both female-focused); she's thoughtfully written, with a combination of her racial politics and her care for the women who work for her making her a powerful figure whose motivations are complicated by her love for her brother.  The majority of the cast are equally interesting; they're not simple characters, but rather, people whose motivations can't be pinned down to one thing, and who have thoughts of their own, and influence the plot in well-thought out ways.

Overall, then, whilst Ganymede, like the other installments of the Clockwork Century, has its flaws, Priest does seem to be improving over time, and this is a fun, enjoyable and well-written story.
Clementine is another installment in Priest's alternate-history Clockwork Century series, and an excellent one at that; a novella available from Subterranean Press in ebook format, it's a story that ticks the boxes that the Clockwork Century series has as its hallmarks: well-written female hero, extended Civil War setting, steampunk mainstays like dirigibles, and the language of the times - one of our main characters here is black, and the attitude to Croggon Hainey is what we might expect. However, the best addition to Clementine is the obvious steampunk one: airship pirates!

The plot of Clementine is an effective, tight and fast-paced one.  We follow Maria Boyd, an ex-Confederate spy now employed by the Pinkerton Agency, in her hunt to prevent Capt. Hainey recapturing his stolen airship the Free Crow (renamed, by the man who stole it, the Clementine); and in the other strand, converging about half-way through the novel, we follow Hainey himself in his attempts to recapture his ship.  The plotting is fast-paced, and the incorporation as the story progresses of other elements and complications to the novel (such as the Union secret weapon, a vital component of which is being delivered in the stolen Free Crow) add a sense of building tension as well as some rogue elements - Boyd feels loyal, still, to the Confederacy - and the book's set-piece scenes are so well written and racey without being wild or confusing that the plot does move along at a fair lick, without leaving the reader behind or throwing out ideas too fast.

The characters are a less strong point, but Clementine still has a solid cast.  Boyd is a well-written and interesting character, albeit suffering a little from the "greatest ever" problem (up front and repeatedly throughout we're told Boyd was one of, if not the, best of the Confederate spies; her actual actions, however, really don't back that up).  Otherwise, though, Boyd is a character who really does bring the reader in; she doesn't like how she's treated as a woman, and doesn't like how she's been treated by her country but still feels loyal to them; there's also the extent to which she uses various tactics, rather than just being able to use her sex to her advantage, and to which she's a character who thinks about things, and is able to adjust to the situation as necessary.  Hainey's a very different character; obsessional, especially about recapturing the Free Crow, he's also got a chip on his shoulder about his treatment as a black man (or, as the novel repeatedly says, driving the point home, a Negro).  That combines with his somewhat chivalrous nature to create a really interesting, thoughtful character who is not only well-written but interesting; we don't see him undamaged by his time as a slave, but at the same time he's not defined by it, which is a fantastic combination.

All in all, Clementine is one of the best installments so far of the Clockwork Century; Priest's writing here is fantastic and fast-paced, and the characterisation excellent across the ball, meaning we're really - for the short length of this novel - seeing some amazing steampunk. With airship pirates.
Hellbent is Priest's follow-up to Bloodshot, and - like Mira Grant's Deadline (spoilerific!!!) - suffers from a number of problems by virtue of being a second novel, including a shared problem of "As you know, Bob..." and a plotline that is a little too messy and disjointed for comfort.  However, on the important counts, Hellbent satisfies the reader, doing what one expects it to; it provides a fun, if not altogether excellent or clear, thriller... with vampires.

Hellbent's characters are substantially similar to those of Bloodshot; our main character is, once again, Raylene, the vampire-heistmeister, and she provides our viewpoint throughout the story.  Her neurotic nature comes through more strongly in Hellbent than it did in Bloodshot, in part because Priest ensures she tells us about it repeatedly, but also because we see her acting it out; there are moments when you expect her to just stop and start going through her bag to make sure she has everything.  Adrian deJesus, the other main stayover from Bloodshot, is a more significant character, and at the same time, he's more characterful; growing out of the ex-SEAL drag queen simplicity of Bloodshot, Priest is really bringing him into his own, on a number of levels, especially the relationship between Ray and Adrian.  The rest of the characters are either relatively backgrounded - Ian, whose problems set one of the plotlines running, is rather sidelined, as are Pepper and Domino - or not explored in enough detail, such as the antagonist of one plotline, Elizabeth.  Whilst this has the benefit of ensuring all attention is on the not-romance-of-course-not-never between Raylene and Adrian, it does mean the novel suffers a little bit of a weak cast, especially if one hasn't already read Bloodshot.

The plotlines of Hellbent are a little problematic, in that they're so disconnected, and yet run concurrently.  Simultaneously, Raylene is asked to steal the penis-bones of various magical beings for her fence for huge financial rewards, and has to settle a problem for Ian - he has been asked to come home, but knows if he returns it will be to be killed.  This leaves Ray with a problem, as she wishes to keep Ian alive.  What follows is a complex, and rather strange, story; Priest appears to have taken the two elements and, rather cavalierly, bolted them together, with neither really impacting the other, except insofar as travel arrangements go.  Each is handled very effectively individually, with some powerful and enjoyable moments throughout, especially with the vampire politics and the penis-based jokes, but one is inescapably left with the feeling that Hellbent would be better as two linked novellas, and the two plotlines better separated than together; but in the end, they are both fun, and enjoyable, pushing the buttons that Bloodshot did, albeit with a little less smoothness.

The real problem comes from Bloodshot, and Hellbent's reliance on events there.  Whilst Priest does highlight it whenever Raylene is giving backstory, it is still didactic and poorly written; necessary, perhaps, but clumsy.  We're given shots of background in one go, rather than even an attempt to smoothly integrate it into the story; this, especially for someone who has read Bloodshot, is jarring and strange.  The rest of the novel is enjoyable and humorously written, with some stunning action scenes and excellent cliffhangers (if a few too many "boner" jokes - though I don't believe that precise one ever appears); the writing style really packs a punch, when Priest wants it to do so.

In the end, Hellbent satisfies a taste for low(ish)-brow urban fantasy with a sense of humour and a sense of style; Priest is capable of better writing, and we've seen it in Bloodshot as well as her other works, but in the end Hellbent is what it (appears to) set out to be: fun, humorous, and slightly silly, brought down by poor exposition and an unintegrated plot.

NB: Combichrist are namechecked in the novel, but I'm having trouble seeing the point of the band, when Neurosis do something similar but better.  Anyone up for explaining them to me?
Priest's Bloodshot is unlike either of the other series of hers that I have read - the Clockwork Century (steampunk) and the Eden Moore series (Southern gothic horror); rather, it is urban fantasy thriller, fast-paced, fun, light but with some serious points to make, and deeply shot through with a sense of humour.  That these novels are so different from each other perhaps suggests the versatility of Priest's ability.

The characters are well-written, to say the least. Raylene, our viewpoint-character in this first-person novel, is a brilliant tone-setter, faithfully followed throughout with little notes of self-awareness about the narrative style (digressions and repetitions noted, self-analysis with a sense of humour perfectly incorporated).  Where she stops and the writing style starts is impossible to say, but let it be noted that the novel is witty, and the character good-humoured and light-hearted but with a capacity for serious emotion - panic, vengefulness, even just horror - that comes through clearly and creates a verisimilitude of character that would be hard to match.  Priest backs up Ray with Adrian, an ex-SWAT drag queen (yes, really; there's quite a lot of dwelling on how built he is, but Adrian is actually a fantastic character), Cal (who is used to great effect, even as something just to play Ray off against) and Ian, whose predicament starts the whole story off and whose character is quite brilliant, in a very English way (he's American, but somehow he seems to me to have an English accent and a certain sophistication and class).  Even the villains, when we come across them, are well-written and you do start to sympathise with them; this novel is not entirely one of clear black-and-white, and Ray might not be in the right, to some extent.

The plot is brilliantly handled; a conspiracy novel, with huge thriller elements, it draws a complex picture where right and wrong aren't entirely clear to the reader - despite Raylene's very black-and-white view of it (which is a difficult trick for any author to pull off, yet Priest manages it excellently).  The Bloodshot programme, which blinded Ian as part of military research into vampires, is a brilliant antagonist for Ray, because it allows Priest to do all sorts of interesting things with the government; and it also allows some really nice tricks to be pulled off to do with responsibility and how to tackle a government programme.  There are brilliant twists as the novel progresses, and the increasingly personal nature of the mission for Ray is starkly presented, really driving it home for the reader what the stakes are.

In sum, then, Bloodshot is urban fantasy done excellently; Priest's humour and style fold excellently into this novel, and make it power along with a laugh track in the background, but it also never loses sight of its seriousness.  A great piece of work, and I'll be sure to pick up Hellbent.
This claustrophobic pseudo-urban fantasy, pseudo-horror novel is steeped heavily in the Southern Gothic tradition; it's claustrophobic, dense, murky, steeped in family drama and conflict, with roots stretching back to that defining American incident the Civil War.  Priest's opus is fantastically powerful and evocative, and Four and Twenty Blackbirds is such a departure from the 'Clockwork Century' that it almost seems to be by a different author; the theme of strong female characters, and of family, is what reminds the reader that there are some features the two series share.

Those female characters are almost the entirety of the cast here; of the major characters in the novel - Eden Moore herself, Lulu, Eliza, Dave, and perhaps Malachi and Harold - more than half are female.  They're strong, individual and well-drawn figures, with complex and intensely human motivations; Eden's drive to find out about her mother, Lulu's drive to protect Eden, and the hidden motives of Eliza are the real driving forces behind the plot, supernatural elements be damned (and, literally, they are...).  The various mindsets of the characters are so different and yet they are all derived from the same kind of characteristics; it's a brilliant piece of authorship.

The plot's a more mixed piece of work.  Whilst I am a fan of the supernatural mixed in with the typical Southern themes (think Tennessee Williams) of family drama and emotional turmoil, there is an extent to which the family drama takes a bit too much of a backseat to the more compelling family drama at times; on the other hand, without the supernatural, there would be less - if any - drama!  I think the problem is that the balance is a little off at times, and the relation between the two aspects of the plot is - until the denoument, which has some wonderful twists and turns as we follow Eden's route towards it.

What's really characteristic in this novel is actually the sense of place.  Priest's setting, of Tennessee, Georgia and Florida allows her to tap into the Southern dynamics and really dig into the American Gothic sensibility of horror through claustrophobia, through the heat and tradition and long-lasting grudges; the racial element plays a large, though not overwhelming, role in the novel and the sense of Southern decadence (and redneck stereotypes - oh, the incest and near-incest!) is really near to the fore; Priest plays with these preconceptions and notions to deliver a really creepy setting, whilst still being utterly believable and real.

In conclusion, then, this urban fantasy with strong American Gothic sensibilities is fantastic; Priest's creation of Eden Moore is a really lovely character who I want to hear more from; and Four and Twenty Blackbirds, whilst being a very different kind of thing than the 'Clockwork Century', is still utterly fantastic.
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.


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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