As a little girl, every summer, my mom would bring my siblings and I to tour the antebellum homes around our region. We’d spend hours walking these palatial halls, able to feel the presence of the past. The traces of lives lived decades before became tangible, made evident in every haunting oil painting, every delicate and elaborate furnishing.
I loved these summers and our small treks into these museums of a lost time. All these places invoked a sense of romanticism in my naive mind. Of course, this was before I fully comprehended the atrocities of the antebellum period— before I knew why the North and South fought; before I could properly fathom the reality of the south’s shameful past. Still, to me, the Civil War period was a fascinating, romantic era that has never fully left my heart. Perhaps it’s an inclination inborn into every little southern girl. At some point that exists beyond the evils of reality, we all wanted to be Scarlet O’Hara at least once in our childhoods.
I never thought about the technicalities of the war or how it shaped the fabric of our country. I’d never imagined what would have happened if the war had been extended, if technologies I was ignorant of would have advanced. I never imagined them or gave them much thought, but Cherie Priest with Dreadnought, has awakened that naive romantic in me since reading the last page and made me constantly wonder.
Priest is best known for her Locus-winning, Boneshaker— the quintessential steampunk novel that blends a Nineteenth century apocalyptic zombie atmosphere and steampunk tropes without the expected humor and camp those elements tend to invoke. And while Dreadnought is meant to be another chapter in her Boneshaker universe, it is a story that stands tall and proud on its own.
Dreadnought introduces us to Mercy Lynch, a newly widowed nurse tending to wounded Rebs at Robertson Hospital. The first chapter has Mercy hearing the news of her husband’s death and receiving a letter that her long-forgotten father is dying and wants her to come to him in the wild, zombie-riddled West. With nothing holding her to the south, Mercy sets off to see her father, making the venture via airships, steamboats and aboard the Union’s mammoth train, the Dreadnought.
On her journey Mercy meets a motley crew of characters, all who in their own ways help or hinder her. As a character, Mercy is real. She is tough. And she is perfectly flawed. But it was the rugged stubbornness and innate willingness to never relent that endeared her to me.
Shining brightly, as an equal star to Mercy in the novel, is Priest’s remarkable writing. The beginning chapters especially are eloquently expressed with lush, vivid detail that gives readers a graphic image of wounded soldiers and the limited resources available to medical staff during that time.
Priest apologies for her alternative “impossible politics” and “incorrect Civil War actions” but I don’t believe that realigning allegiances and introducing soldiers with zombieesque characteristics warrants apologies. Fiction, true, needs to make sense. It needs to be more logical and realistic than, in many cases, life, but with Dreadnought, Priest didn’t invent new technologies or alter history in a haphazard, careless way. It is obvious she’s done her weight in research, (see the exhaustive detail given to the mechanics of the Dreadnought). These details lends credence to the authenticity of the characters and plot and draws readers in, makes them pay attention and it is, in my opinion, what sets Priest a part from the mass of steampunk writers who dive into the genre to follow a trend. Priest isn’t that writer. She’s far better than that.
What struck me most in the novel, was Priest’s ability to take what could have been droll tropes— withering zombies and fantastic dirigibles crash landing— and give them authority; writing with a skill that is remarkably fresh and imaginative.
Reading Dreadnought was like visiting those large antebellum homes once more and it gave me the same simple pleasure of being a voyeur to the past. True, there were never zombies or wars that last more than twenty years in those childhood visits, but reading the novel reminded me of our difficult past and the importance of taking journeys that will always lead us home.