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Book Review, Cherie Priest, Fiddlehead

January 31, 2014

Fiddlehead is, I am sad to say, the last book in Cherie Priest’s The Clockwork Century series. This series, as I’ve mentioned before, has, in my opinion, set the standard for American Steampunk, incorporating elements of the Weird West, as well as almost every single Steampunk technology trope, into a convincing depiction of an alternate America still fighting the Civil War during the 1870s. Any series that can successfully incorporate zombies without making them ridiculous gets major gold stars in my book.

Fiddlehead is not the strongest entry in the series. I agree with many reviewers on Goodreads that Boneshaker is still the best of the bunch, although Fiddlehead comes a close second for me. The problem, actually, lies with the Fiddlehead itself, which is basically Babbage’s difference engine translated to Civil War America. While it plays a major role at the beginning of the book, predicting ominous events that the characters then respond to, this book really isn’t about the machine at all. I also was less than awed by Gideon Bardsley, the Fiddlehead’s creator, who never seemed to be fully developed.

As Fiddlehead is the last book in the series, Priest had to tie up the various threads running through the entire series: primarily, the threat that the “rotters” pose to the World As We Know It. In this, the book was largely successful. We meet the creepy and evil Katharine Haymes, a weapons manufacturer determined to use yellow gas in a doomsday weapon (and, we suspect, responsible for spreading the gas well beyond Seattle with her previous experiments). Priest successfully gives us the big picture of her alternate United States, including plenty of callbacks to the previous novels (and, with the exception of one deus ex machina moment toward the end of the book, these all serve to advance the plot rather than as homages to the prior stories). I also give her serious credit for not taking us back to Seattle, as that would have been a little too cute (and, the story had pretty much wrapped up there in The Inexplicables).

The stakes are much higher here than in the previous books, with Abraham Lincoln and a truly bad-ass Ulysses S. Grant playing major roles. Maria “Belle” Boyd returns as well, and along with Bardsley, Lincoln, Grant, and their allies, works to stop Haymes from deploying her weapon. Boyd continues the tradition of Priest heroines, fully complex, emotionally realized, and a Hero in her own right. (And how awesome was it that both the Hero and Villain of this novel were women?) The climactic shootout at the end of the book, starring two Presidents and Mary Todd Lincoln being the good kind of crazy, is not to be missed.

And while I did find the ending of the book to be somewhat vague (the war is over, and everyone now has electric fences to kill their local zombies?), I can live with it—and hope that Priest will revisit the world of The Clockwork Century again someday.

Priest has set the bar high, and I hope that this inspires more forays into American Steampunk. While I love the stories set in Britain, it’s always nice to find more tales set closer to home.

Source: My public library

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