Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Dreadnought" by Cherie Priest

Dreadnought is the first "steampunk" novel - or story, more generally - that I've ever read (that I can remember). And it was a great primer to the genre: Dreadnought's got steam-driven golems, airships, artillery, zombies, and tons of other fun stuff that sort of screams "steampunk," at least as far as the genre has ever been described to me.

It's also a great adventure book. Priest's prose is effectively seamless; I was drawn through the pages easily because she doesn't spend time in digressions. This is first and foremost an adventure book.

But that strength is also a weakness. There were about two (2) moments when I felt interested in the protagonist, largely because there's nearly no introspection, and the adventure is so fast-paced, helter-skelter, and out of this world that there's no time to see the character for who she is. Also, since there are so many characters who pop up and then disappear, and essentially no "long term contacts" for the main character, you don't really get to understand her mental milieu.

Still, those two times I really got interested? They really hooked me. And I'm not sure if that's because of, or in spite of, the fact that there were so few instances of real character depth.

The book still worked, either way; but don't read it expecting a grand character sketch. Read it expecting some totally awesome stuff, but not necessarily totally awesome people.

I also want to give Priest props for doing right by the zombies. Personally, I'm really hard to impress when it comes to zombies. Undead have been part of my personal subculture for more than a decade, so the fact that they're so popular now makes me make farting noises by flapping my lips derisorily. But Priest... she pulls it off. Even though her undead follow the now-ubiquitous "infection" style (which I do not prefer to the classic necromantic version), they were done in a straight-up way that I found to be classic; and they weren't the core of the story, either. This was far better, ultimately, than (for example) Tobias Buckell's use of zombies in "Sly Mongoose," which - though it was "clever" and "new" - completely ruined the book for me, precisely because it wasn't, ultimately, either clever or new - just hashed up, or "weirdified," if you will.

Despite the fact that I'm overall thumbs-up on Dreadnought, I doubt I'll read any more steampunk - at least, the through-and-through kind. I like steampunk elements in my fantasy, but when it forms the core of the genre I find it too bland.

"Bland?" you might ask. "Golems, airships, and zombies is bland?" Well, this is coming from a guy who likes decadence: Steven Erikson, Steph Swainston, China MiƩville, Jeff Vandermeer, and Iain M. Banks form the core of some of my favourite authors. Steampunk is decadent, but in a really bland way; and it's blandness makes it even more difficult to believe. For example, could you really fire a cannon from aboard a train without, y'know... knocking it off the tracks?

Anyhow... Priest keeps this tale on the tracks, artillery or otherwise, and Dreadnought is a heavy metal ride for the ages. If you like steampunk, or want to try some out, I definitely recommend Dreadnought.



  1. I like the cover art.

    I think one of the main strengths of steam-punk is the possibility for elephant guns to make an appearance. Blam! Take that giant mechanical man.


  2. Well I'll be damned. You can have artillery on a train!