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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 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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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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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  70 reviews
39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars pace and character issues, strong prose, satisfying Oct. 27 2010
By B. Capossere - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Dreadnought is Cherie Priest's follow-up of sorts to Boneshaker. It's "of sorts" because while it takes place in the same alternate America at roughly the same time period, and we see a few familiar characters (at the very end), it isn't at all a direct sequel. Instead, it introduces Mercy Swakhammer (yes, his daughter for Boneshaker readers), a nurse at a Confederate hospital during the decades-long Civil War. Early on she receives two important bits of news. The first is that her Union husband has been killed. The second is that her father is near death out in Seattle and is desperate to see her, though he abandoned her and her mother when she was but a child. The first leaves her free to do what she wishes with her life and the second propels her on a risky cross-country trip from one coast to the other. The trip is rife with adventure, involving battles, airship crashes, raids on the train she is on, zombie attacks, mysterious cargo cars, missing Mexicans, a mysterious Texas ranger, a possibly mad scientist, and the underlying question as to whether Mercy will ever make it to the other side of the country.

I thoroughly enjoyed Boneshaker, but to be honest found Dreadnought to be a bit of a slog at times to get through. I kept picking it up and putting it down, which is always a sign I'm not particularly enjoying a book, as I typically finish books in a sitting or two. If it takes me more than three days to get through a sub-400 page book, I'm just not that excited about it.

One of my issues was the pacing. The book started off a bit slow, had some rollicking moments (an airship crash, mechanical walkers), then really slowed down as we got a lot of travel plans and info, ticket buying, etc. I don't need books to be non-stop action, and I'm a huge fan of "quiet" character-driven novels, but this one just seemed unbalanced, never quite finding a smooth rhythm or pace of action.

The characters too weren't all that compelling. The biggest problem was with the secondary characters, none of whom really came alive for me, whether it be the Union commander, the fellow women passengers, the porters, the mad scientist. They all felt a bit perfunctory, there to play their plot role devices but not much beyond that. I can't say I would have felt much had any of them not made it. The main character, simply by being on stage all the time, is obviously more fleshed out, but even with Mercy I can't say I felt she was all that distinctive a personality. At times, yes, but not consistently so throughout the novel. Part of the reason for this I think was that although she's portrayed as a not-particularly passive personality, the intersection of her character and plot quite often makes into a passive character: being ordered to do something rather than choosing it, reacting rather than choosing to act, etc.

What saves Dreadnought probably more than the several strong scenes (and there are several such) is Priest's sharp prose. For instance:

Sunset took forever; with no mountains or hills for it to fall behind . . . The warm light belied the chill outside, and the passenger cars were bathed in a rose colored glow even as the riders rubbed their hands together and breathed into their fingers, or gathered over the steam vents. Porters came through on the heels of the sun's retreating rays, lighting the gas lamps that were placed on either side of each door, protected by reinforced glass so the light wouldn't blow out with the opening and closing of these same portals.

That sort of precision and vividness and wonderful rhythm of prose runs throughout the book; there were several such passages I marked and could have chosen as examples. I actually would have preferred more, to balance out the satisfactory but less magical dialogue/interior monologue.

I finished Dreadnought more slightly satisfied than happy, perhaps even more satisfied at the finishing than the reading. It's a mostly well-written book that just didn't capture my attention fully due to issues with pace and character and while I'd call it a disappointment, it wasn't enough so that I won't read the next book in the series.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dreadnought reads like the adventure of a lifetime Dec 13 2010
By Mrs. Baumann - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Plot Summary: In an alternate history where the Civil War is still raging after 20 years, a Confederate nurse named Mercy Lynch learns that her husband has died prison. On the heels of that sad news, she also learns that the father who deserted her years ago is on his deathbed, and he wants to see her. Mercy is in Virginia, and her father is in Seattle, but despite the near impossibility of a cross-country journey in the middle of a war, Mercy agrees to go since she has nothing to keep her back East. On dirigibles, paddle-boats, and trains, Mercy makes the long, often tumultuous trip back to the Washington Territory, to see a man who she'd mentally written off long ago.

Dreadnought reads like the adventure of a lifetime. It's an epic, cross-country travelogue that alternates between mundane moments and nail-biting action. I think it's a terrific story, but I do think it has the capacity to disappoint some readers because it's devoid of relationships of any kind. Any connections that the heroine makes on the course of her travels are brief and transitory, and while this feels completely authentic, it subtracts from the emotional punch of the story. The lack of romance I can handle, but the lack of friendships? I think that's a minor flaw, but that's the only flaw I'm going to cite. Otherwise this story has everything I could ask for.

Mercy is a plain-speaking woman who is uneducated, and yet she's overflowing with street smarts. She's the type to keep her head in a crisis, and she can sew up a shrapnel-torn scalp in the middle of a battle. She's an admirable woman, and I'm not just saying that because she has a tendency to curse under duress, which tickles my fancy. Cherie Priest has written another strong female lead (the other one I'm thinking of is in Boneshaker), and it's important to like Mercy and to root for her because she's the only glue holding this story together.

Ms. Priest absolutely excels at setting the scene within her steampunk world, and I thought her revisionist take on the Civil War was a brilliant move. I never have any problems sinking into her vision, and her descriptions are crisp, clear, and illuminating. I particularly liked how the zombies in Boneshaker tie into the plot in Dreadnought, but never fear if you haven't read Boneshaker, because each book stands on its own two feet. I'll be hard-pressed to find another author who combines the American West and steampunk so effortlessly, and makes it come alive in my mind without feeling artificial or hokey. It reminds me of the saying, "When the legend becomes fact print the legend," because this legend felt as real to me as any fact I know. I can't think of a higher compliment.
13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I wanted to like this, however... Nov. 1 2010
By M. J. Musante - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Disclaimer: I was sent this book for free as part of a promotional giveaway I saw on John Scalzi's "Whatever" blog.

Second disclaimer: I'm a bit late on the "read in two weeks and review" requirement, for which I apologize wholeheartedly and unreservedly.

Dreadnought is another of Cherie Priest's books in the "Clockwork Century" series. It follows on from Clementine, and from Boneshaker, which I read about half of before giving up on. Her writing style in Boneshaker did not mesh well with my reading style, so I was curious to find out whether she got any better. Bottom line: Dreadnought is much less grating on my parsing neurons than the first one.

Let's focus on the bad, first. I still find the banal conversations to be annoying, I still am puzzled by the extreme focus on throwaway actions, and I'm still thrown out of the story when impressively lucky coincidences help our heroine along. For these reasons, I cannot recommend the book. I don't know if a conversation with a ticket agent, for example, is meant to help put me into the world, or just to make me wonder why we're focussing on such a seemingly minor character. Either way, it wasn't working for me. I see, based on other amazon reviews, that I am in the minority here. Most other people enjoyed it, with the only complaint thus far being an issue with time and distance travelled.

The good: the story was very interesting -- being my first steampunk novel mean that I was not bored with the dirigibles and the zombies -- and held me through to the end. So, if you like a good story and either don't mind Cherie Priest's writing style or actually enjoy it, then this book will work for you. I think I'll pass on the rest of Priest's oeuvre, however.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How can you go wrong? Feb. 4 2012
By Lane N Copley - Published on Amazon.com
There are probably people in this world who cannot imagine a world wherein the American Civil War raged for twenty years of horror-filled attrition, culminating in the construction of huge war machines that walk upright, dirigibles that cross the continent, a truculent alliance between the Republic of Texas and the Confederation of American States and mad scientists bent on ending the war with a horrible kind of final solution.

I pity you.

For people who have trouble imagining this I present Dreadnought, by Cherie Priest, who can bring it to life for you without much trouble. She can bring a lot more than this, but I like to leave out the really, really juicy bits for you to enjoy without spoilage (hint: the aforementioned "horrible kind of final solution"). I heard this audiobook and liked it so much I listened to it twice (partly because my ancient phone honked up). The narrator, Kate Reading, has a lengthy career breathing life into novels and does quite well with this one.

One thing I really, really liked about this book is the lack of romance anywhere within. A woman travelling across a continent on a dirigible that's been shot down in the middle of a battlefield, chased by giant war machines, beset by bushwhackers, pursued by Confederate troops, shot at by barking mad scientists and surrounded by evil (and low on gas) is not really in a mood to be enthralled by another.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Judge this one by its cover Aug. 21 2011
By R. S. Garbacz - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Cherie Priest repeats the recipe that made her first book such a success: take one surprisingly three-dimensional female protagonist with a history of tragedy, mix with equal parts dark zombie adventure and swashbuckling fun, soak in contemporary steampunk aesthetics. It's a strange mixture, but one that works quite nicely. This time, though, Priest switches out the cramped, monochrome confines of her first novel for a rich, varied journey through an America almost folding under the weight of a too-long Civil War. Add in a cross-country trip, a Texas Lawman, simmering regional bitterness on a Union-operated train, and both Union and Confederate superweapons, and you've got a novel worthy of both the pulp-adventure sentiment and surprisingly nuanced texture promised by the magnificent front-cover painting.
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