Book Review: “Clementine” by Cherie Priest

Cover of Clementine by Cherie PriestClementine is the second novel in Cherie Priest‘s steampunk Clockwork Century series, set in the late nineteenth century during a protracted version of the American Civil War.

When I was a teenager in the 1990s I had never heard of steampunk but I enjoyed a good alternate history, and the ones I read often included technology that had taken off before it did in real life–based on Tesla’s electrical experiments or Babbage’s difference engine for instance. Later when I started hearing people talk about steampunk it seemed to encompass a large part of the kind of alternate history I’d enjoyed, and I began to seek out steampunk novels. Too often lately it seems that steampunk as a fiction sub-genre has become a bit like steampunk as a style – stick a few cogs on something mundane and call it done. The worst kind of bandwagon-jumping. With Cherie Priest, what we seem to have is actual alternate history.

Middle-aged widow Maria Boyd’s long career as a Confederate spy is over, much to her disappointment, but when Mr Pinkerton offers her a place at his detective agency in Chicago, she reports for duty and takes her first assignment. Working on behalf of the Union Army.

Meanwhile air pirate (and runaway slave) Croggon Hainey is pursuing a thief across the Rockies in a dirigible. This thief stole from Hainey, and once Hainey catches up with him he’ll wish he hadn’t been born. Unfortunately the man Hainey is pursuing is currently working for the Union Army on an important mission, and they need him to arrive at his destination in one piece, along with his cargo. Which is where Maria comes in.

During a complicated situation in Kansas City, Hainey and Boyd form an uneasy alliance. Dangerous and experienced as each of them is alone, they make an even more formidable team.

Clementine was a fast-paced novel with a relatively simple and effective story line. My lack of familiarity with American history (and indeed geography) did make me a little slow on the uptake about implications occasionally (a runaway slave heading for the southern states for instance) but even with that it was an easy read with a good pacing of tension and release.

The two main characters are presented with enough depth and backstory that I felt like I’d read about them before (this is the second in the series, picked up because the library had books 2-4 but not Boneshaker, the first Clockwork Century novel. I don’t know if either Hainey or Boyd features in the previous book). Hainey in particular came across as a complex character with conflicting drives, an intelligent man scarred by slavery, capable of both compassion and calculated violence.

The anachronistic technology was subtly done, with much of the setting familiar from many a Clint Eastwood film – dirt and mules, Gatling guns and Colts, segregation and dubious hotels. It was the military (or those that worked for them or stole from them) that had the most impressively advanced hardware.

I mean to work my way through the rest of the Clockwork Century novels just as soon as I can lay my hands on them. In the meantime, there is a great website where excerpts and shorter works set in the Clockwork Century world are available to read for free.