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- Author: Cherie Priest
- Book Series: The Clockwork Century series
- Publisher: Tor/Forge
- Genre: Steampunk/Alternative History
- Format: Trade Paperback, 366 pages
Book Review: Fiddlehead
The Definitive Steampunk Saga
By Chuck Francisco
December 13, 2013
Book Review: Fiddlehead
Steampunk has an inconsistent reputation amongst the general populace. You may quite fairly point out that many a lesser author have wrapped an otherwise dreadful book in the cloak of clockwork machinations, hoping to capitalize on a burgeoning fad. It's happened, though perhaps not to the quarantine demanding levels of pandemic which the internet is so famous for bandying about. Rising above that riffraff flotsam, and once again defending her crown as the queen of streampunk, strides Cherie Priest with what is being whispered to be the final entry in her The Clockwork Century series.
What began with 2009's Boneshaker, a novel most commonly encapsulated as "Steampunk with zombies and air pirates", has grown to cast a murky yellow light on five novels (Boneshaker, Dreadnaught, Ganymede, The Inexplicables, and novella Clementine), illuminating both a wonderfully imaginative world and the fantastic mind of its creator. Set in an America which has seen the Civil War prolonged far beyond its length in our reality, this series see the wartime acceleration of technology down a branch of steam powered innovation. Further flummoxing the situation is a lethal yellow gas which is seeping from the ground of an walled off and mostly abandoned city of Seattle- a gas which has been turned into a frightfully addictive narcotic by the seedier elements of society, and which turns long time addicts into the living dead.
One of the most exhilarating elements of The Clockwork Century novels is the deviation from a consistent protagonist- instead of the series following the same characters through its run, a new set are usually called on to man the narrative for each book. These societal outsiders form the connective tissue of the larger story arc, often times sprinkling former books' protagonists into the supporting cast for good measure. There is an enjoyable rhythm to Priest's character rotation, equal measures nostalgia and familiarity, which strikes the reader's comfort sweet spot (the sweet spot solar plexus? Who can tell?).
And so onto the scene shuffles Fiddlehead, announcing its presence with the raspy dried throat of a recently turned rotter. With powerful hands quite formerly human, it grabs hold of the attention and simply refuses to be put down. Readers will sit riveted as two warring governments, willfully blind to the coming zombie menace, teeter on the brink of apocalypse. Freed slave turned genius tinkerer Gideon Bardsley creates the world's first computational engine with the intention of asking which side, North or South, will triumph. When it returns that neither will, that both will fall to an unstoppable zombie horde, Gideon has very little time to change the course of history.
Luckily his supportive patron is former president Abraham Lincoln, who has miraculously survived his assassination at Ford's Theater, though not unscathed. Honest Abe hires on Maria Boyd, a former Confederate spy and now Pinkerton detective, to investigate who would want to sabotage Gideon's machine. What Priest does so well is effectively shift narrative tone as chapters change characters. Reading Gideon actually feels different than reading Maria, and it should. So often authors fail at making distinctions distinct; Cherie Priest nails that bull's eye at a full gallop.
What follows is a rousing tale of detective fiction mixed with gunslinging action, peppered with espionage intrigue, and all set to simmer in a steampunk crockpot of alternate history. Priest displays a wizardry with regards to weaving those divergent time streams seamlessly into our own. Fiddlehead harbors a believability quotient which derives from careful attention to source material.
Fiddlehead is a powerful cap stone to The Clockwork Century series- if this truly is the end then Priest could not have done a more superb job in crafting the denouement. This is the definitive steampunk saga, the yardstick against which all other shall now be measured. More than that, this is a damned good read from a series full of damned good reads. Books of the series can be read in any order, and new comers don't have to worry about it being a bar to entry. Check out Fiddlehead today and if you dig it (you will), grab Boneshaker, the first book, which has been optioned for a film adaption by the newly reinvigorated Hammer films.
Boneshaker is available now from Tor Publishing as a handsome trade paperback for $14.99. Order it Here.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.