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Dreadnought [Paperback]

Cherie Priest
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Book Description

Sept. 28 2010
Nurse Mercy Lynch is elbows deep in bloody laundry at a war hospital in Richmond, Virginia, when Clara Barton comes bearing bad news: Mercy’s husband has died in a POW camp. On top of that, a telegram from the west coast declares that her estranged father is gravely injured, and he wishes to see her. Mercy sets out toward the Mississippi River. Once there, she’ll catch a train over the Rockies and—if the telegram can be believed—be greeted in Washington Territory by the sheriff, who will take her to see her father in Seattle.

Reaching the Mississippi is a harrowing adventure by dirigible and rail through war-torn border states. When Mercy finally arrives in St. Louis, the only Tacoma-bound train is pulled by a terrifying Union-operated steam engine called the Dreadnought. Reluctantly, Mercy buys a ticket and climbs aboard.

What ought to be a quiet trip turns deadly when the train is beset by bushwhackers, then vigorously attacked by a band of Rebel soldiers. The train is moving away from battle lines into the vast, unincorporated west, so Mercy can’t imagine why they’re so interested. Perhaps the mysterious cargo secreted in the second and last train cars has something to do with it?

Mercy is just a frustrated nurse who wants to see her father before he dies. But she’ll have to survive both Union intrigue and Confederate opposition if she wants to make it off the Dreadnought alive.

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About the Author

Cherie Priest is the author of Boneshaker, which was nominated for a Nebula and Hugo Award, won the Locus Award for best science-fiction novel, and was named Steampunk Book of the Year by steampunk.com. She is also the author of the near-contemporary fantasy Fathom, and she debuted to great acclaim with Four and Twenty Blackbirds, Wings to the Kingdom, and Not Flesh Nor Feathers, a trilogy of Southern Gothic ghost stories featuring heroine Eden Moore. Born in Tampa, Florida, Priest earned her master’s in rhetoric at the University of Tennessee. She lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband, Aric, and a fat black cat named Spain.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

One

Down in the laundry room with the bloody- wet floors and the ceiling- high stacks of sheets, wraps, and blankets, Vinita Lynch was elbows- deep in a vat full of dirty pillowcases because she’d promised— she’d sworn on her mother’s life— that she’d find a certain windup pocket watch belonging to Private Hugh Morton before the device was plunged into a tub of simmering soapy water and surely destroyed for good.

Why the private had stashed it in a pillowcase wasn’t much of a mystery: even in an upstanding place like the Robertson Hospital, small and shiny valuables went missing from personal stashes with unsettling regularity. And him forgetting about it was no great leap either: the shot he took in the forehead had been a lucky one because he’d survived it, but it left him addled at times— and this morning at breakfast had been one of those times. At the first bell announcing morning food, against the strict orders of Captain Sally he’d sat up and bolted into the mess hall, which existed only in that bullet- buffeted brain of his. In the time it took for him to be captured and redirected to his cot, where the meal would come to him, thank you very kindly, if only he’d be patient enough to receive it, the junior nursing staff had come through and stripped the bedding of all and sundry.

None of them had noticed the watch, but it would’ve been easy to miss.

So Nurse Lynch was down in the blistering hot hospital basement, dutifully fishing through laundry soiled by injured and greasy heads, running noses, and rheumy eyes in hopes that Private Hugh Morton would either be re united with the absent treasure, or would be separated from it long enough to forget all about it.

Upstairs, someone cried out, “Mercy!”

And downstairs, in the hospital basement, Vinita Lynch took a very deep breath and let it out slowly, between her teeth.

“Mercy! Mercy, come up here, please!”

Because that’s what they’d taken to calling her, through some error of hearing or paperwork, or because it was easier for a room full of bed- bound men to remember a common word than call her by her given name.

“Mercy!”

It was louder this time, and insistent, and bellowed by Captain Sally herself somewhere up on the first floor. Captain Sally sounded like she meant business; but then again, Captain Sally always meant business, and that was why she was the captain.

The nurse angled her head to cast her voice up the stairs and shouted, “Coming!” though she continued to rifle through the laundry, because something sharp had tapped against the nail of her thumb. And if she could just snare one long finger around the smooth metal plate of the watch’s back— yes, that had to be it— then she’d be only a moment longer. “I’m coming!” she said even more loudly, to stall for those extra seconds, even though the summons hadn’t come again.

She had it. Her fist closed around it and wrested the palmsized device, ticking and intact, up through the folds of cotton bedding and out of the vat. The watch was cool in her hand, and heavier than it appeared— not an expensive piece, but one with thumb- spots worn into its finish from a lifetime of use and appreciation. “Found it,” she said to herself, and she shoved it into her apron’s pocket for temporary safekeeping.

“Mercy!” Again from upstairs, and impatient.

“I said I was coming!” she responded as she hiked the hem of her skirts and bolted up the stairs, less ladylike than swiftly, back into the hall behind the kitchen. Moving sideways, she squeezed past the orderlies, one of the doctors, and three of the elderly women who were hired to perform mending but mostly bickered amongst themselves. Her way was briefly blocked by one of the retained men who was carrying a basket full of bandages and wraps; they did a brief and awkward dance, back and forth, each trying to let the other pass, until she finally dashed by with an apology— but if he replied, she didn’t hear him, because the main ward was now immediately before her.

She entered it with a breathless flourish and stood panting, squeezing at the pocket watch in her apron and trying to spot Captain Sally in the sea of supine bodies lying on cots in varying states of health and repair.

The rows ran eight cots by fifteen in this ward, which served as admittance, triage, and recovery room alike. It should’ve held only two- thirds that number, and the present crowding served to narrow the aisles to the point that they were nearly impassible, but no one was turned away. Captain Sally said that if they had to stitch them standing up and lash them to the closet walls, they’d take every Confederate boy who’d been carried off the field.

But she could make such declarations. It was her hospital, and she legally outranked everyone else in the building. The “Captain” bit was not a nickname. It was a commission from the Confederate States of America, and it had been granted because a military hospital must have a military commander, but Sally Louisa Tompkins would accept no superior, and she was too wealthy and competent to be ignored.

The din of the ward was at its ordinary hideous level; the groaning patients, creaking cot springs, and hoarse requests combining to form the usual background hum. It was not a pretty noise, and it was sometimes punctuated with vomiting or cries of pain, but it was always there, along with the ever- present scents of dirty bodies, sweat, blood, shit, the medicinal reek of ether, the yellowy sharp stink of saltpeter and spent gunpowder, and the feeble efforts of lye soap to combat it all. Mere soap, no matter how finely scented, could never scour the odors of urine, scorched flesh, and burned hair. No perfume could cleanse away the porksweet smell of rotting limbs and gangrenous flesh.

Mercy told herself that the reek of the hospital wasn’t any worse than that of the farm in Waterford, Virginia. That was a lie. It was worse than the summer when she’d gone out to the back twenty and found their bull lying with its legs in the air, its belly distended

with the bloat of rot and a crawling carpet of flies. This was worse than that because it wasn’t the decomposition of beef lying in the sun, flesh dripping away gray and mushy. This was worse because after a while the bull had faded and gone, its smell washed away by the summer rains and its remains buried by her stepfather and brother. After a while, she’d altogether forgotten where the creature had fallen and died, and it was as if it’d never happened.

But that never happened here.

Not even at the cleanest hospital in all the Confederacy, where fewer men died and more men recovered to return to the front than in any other in the North or South or even Europe. Not even in the wake of Captain Sally’s strenuous— almost maddening— insistence on cleanliness. Enormous pots of water boiled constantly, and mops were pushed in two- hour shifts by legions of retained men who were healed enough to help but not enough to fight. Paul Forks was one of these men. Harvey Kline was another, and

Medford Simmons a third, and Anderson Ruby a fourth; and if she knew more of their names, Mercy Lynch could’ve listed another dozen maimed and helpful souls.

They kept the floors from staining red, and helped carry the endless trays of food and medicines, tagging along in the wake of the doctors and helping the nurses manage the unruly ones who awoke afraid.

And even with the help of these men, and two dozen nurses like herself, and five doctors working around the clock, and a whole contingent of laundry and kitchen women, the smell never, ever went away.

It worked itself into the wrinkles in Mercy’s clothes and lurked in her hair. It collected under her fingernails. She carried it with her, always.

“Captain Sally?” Mercy called out, and as soon as the words were spoken, she spied the woman standing near the front door, accompanied by another woman and a man.

Sally was small and pale, with dark hair parted severely down the middle of her head and a plain black dress buttoned tightly from waist to chin. She was leaning forward to better hear the other woman speak, while the gentleman behind them shuffled back and forth on his feet, moving his gaze left to right.

“Mercy.” Captain Sally wended through the maze of cots to meet the young nurse. She had stopped shouting. “Mercy, I need a word with you. I’m very sorry, but it’s important. Would you join us?” She indicated the anxious- looking man and the stoic woman

with a New Englander’s ramrod posture.

“Who are those people?” she asked without agreeing to anything. “They have a message for you.”

Mercy didn’t want to meet the man and woman. They did not look like people with good news to pass along. “Why don’t they come inside to deliver it, then?”

Sally said, “Dearest,” and she pressed her mouth close to Mercy’s ear. “That’s Clara Barton, the Red Cross woman, and no one’ll bother her. But the fellow beside her is a Yankee.”

Mercy made a little choking sound. “What’s he doing here, then?” she asked, though she already had a very good idea, and it was horrible.

“Mercy—”

“Ain’t they got their own hospitals, hardly a hundred miles away in Washington? He doesn’t look hurt none too bad, anyhow.” She was talking too quickly.

Sally interrupted. “Mercy, you need to talk to that man, and Miss Barton.”

“That Red Cross woman, what does she want with me? I’ve already got a job nursing, and it’s right here, and I don’t want to—” ...


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strong Female + Action = Dashed Good Fun! Dec 4 2010
Format:Paperback
Having come to know Cherie Priest first (through a convention) and the books she writes as a result of thinking "this is a wonderful person", it's quite possible that I was pre-destined to like this book as much as I enjoyed the previous book of hers read, "Boneshaker". That said, "Dreadnought" is not the same book, but is just the same level of fascinating read. While last year's book was set in a small geographic area and stressed character and rules of the world over action (while still including the latter very much), "Dreadnought" covers nearly half of the USA geographically (as the heroine rushes to the side of her dying father) as a plenitude of dangers attempt to block her travels.

This might sound a bit patronizing, but isn't intended to: Priest writes the best action scenes I've ever seen from a female author, bar none. In order to qualify that statement, I'll further say that this is among some of the very best action-based narrative I've ever read, including Desmond Bagley and Ian Flemming. It's often thought that woman either can't or don't write action scenes, but this is bumf; it's just more 'manly' to have people zipping around and shooting at each other, that's all.

Strong female characters with Father Issues seem to be recurring themes of Ms Priest's, and this novel is the same, with the protagonist being both a young war-widow and her father becoming estranged from the family when she was quite young; her previous novel having similar aspects to it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting idea, well executed Feb. 6 2011
Format:Paperback
Dreadnought is an interesting idea, well executed, in so far as the story and the crafting of the plot is concerned.

Some of the historical details are a little under-researched, but this being alternative reality steampunk, you may always use the old canard of ah-ah, but in this world, it happened slightly differently.

But this is a minor nitpick. If you're not a historian, just settle down and get reading and let yourself be swept along with the adventure of it all.

This was my first Priest novel. It will not be my last now.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Machines of war May 2 2011
By E. A Solinas HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
The Clockwork Century series is some of the finest alt-history/steampunk writing you can find -- tough heroines, gritty adventures, and lots of airships and giant drills. "Dreadnought" has all of those in plenty, and Cherie Priest does a brilliant job imagining an alternate Civil War armed with steampunk weapons and vehicles.

Vinita "Mercy" Lynch is working hard in a Southern hospital (during a Civil War that has been going on for A VERY LONG TIME), helping care for horribly wounded soldiers. Then she receives two shocking pieces of news -- her husband has died in the war, and her biological father (whom everyone has presumed dead) has actually been living in Washington for all these years. Feeling that she has nothing to anchor her there, Mercy decides to go see "daddy dearest."

It's hard enough for a single woman to travel alone, but Mercy soon discovers that traveling during wartime is even worse. The airship she is traveling on is shot down, leaving the passengers stranded in the middle of nowhere -- and her only chance of getting to Washington may involve a Union train of devastating power, the Dreadnought. And unfortunately, that isn't the last obstacle between her and Washington.

For the record, "Dreadnought" isn't really a sequel to either of the previous two Clockwork World books. There ARE some brief references to "Boneshaker" -- they are in the same world, after all -- but it's very much its own, independent story. And this one is all about the war-torn, danger-filled America of Priest's world.

A lot of "Dreadnought's" appeal comes from Mercy. This is a tough, tough lady -- she's strong, independent and outspoken, but she's also very compassionate.
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