One of the most entertaining novels I read in 2009 was Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. Full of exciting cross-genre adventure (zombies, steampunk, post-apocalyptic retrofuturism), memorable characters and a cool twist on American history, Boneshaker was a blast to read. I couldn’t wait to see what else Cherie Priest’s CLOCKWORK CENTURY had to offer. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long thanks to Subterranean Press and their publication of Clementine.
Clementine is a 208 page novella that expands on characters and events briefly introduced in Boneshaker, specifically runaway slave Captain Croggon Beauregard Hainey and the theft of his airship, the Free Crow. In Clementine, Hainey and his two-man crew (Lamar and Simeon) are in hot pursuit of the stolen airship — renamed the Clementine by the thief Felton Brink — as it travels across the Midwest and towards Kentucky. The novella also revolves around real-life historical figure Maria Isabella Boyd (Belle Boyd), an ex-Confederate spy newly employed by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which has tasked her with ensuring the safe arrival of the Clementine and its precious cargo in Louisville, KY.
There’s a bit more going on with the plot, such as the construction of a powerful new weapon that could finally end the Civil War, as well as some spy intrigue, but for the most part Cherie Priest keeps things simple and to the point. Personally, that’s what I like about novellas. They are usually more concise than novels, without any extraneous fat. In Clementine’s case, the smaller word count results in faster pacing and fewer lulls than Boneshaker, while delivering a nearly non-stop barrage of crowd-pleasing entertainment rivaling anything currently produced by Hollywood.
Of course, there are downsides to a smaller word count. The most glaring problem with Clementine is the shallow characterization of the novella’s supporting characters, in particular Ossian Steen, Doctor Smeeks and a young boy, who all play important roles in the book’s conclusion. There are also a couple of unresolved plot threads regarding the mysterious Phinton Kulp and an old acquaintance of Maria’s, as well as themes of racism and loyalty that lack the punch they could have had if given more room to grow. Apart from these minor issues, Cherie Priest delivers another impressive performance, highlighted by her accessible writing style, skillful execution, and invigorating dialogue, especially the verbal exchanges involving Belle Boyd:
- “… and since you’ve already so eloquently confessed to your wartime activities, I might assume that once or twice, you’ve been known to hurt a man or two.”“Once or twice, plus half a dozen more. And if you don’t vacate these premises, perhaps that tally will rise.”
- “There are people in this world who steadfastly refuse to understand anything unless it’s couched in terms of violence. In my experience, it is most expedient to simply accomodate them.”“Expedient?”“You may as well communicate in the language they best understand.”
While there are connections between Clementine and Boneshaker, and the novella makes several references (Dr. Minnericht, the Blight, Andan Cly, etc.) to the earlier novel, it reads independently of the opening volume in the CLOCKWORK CENTURY. In fact, the two books are different beasts altogether. Where Boneshaker reminded me of a cross between The Wild Wild West, Fallout and a George Romero zombie movie, Clementine combines Western pulp, steampunk, swashbuckling adventure and a dash of espionage for an experience more akin to The Wild Wild West meets Indiana Jones meets Pirates of the Sky Caribbean. In short, readers don’t need to be familiar with Boneshaker in order to enjoy Clementine, but I would still recommend it.
As for the novella overall, as much fun as I had with Boneshaker, I enjoyed reading Clementine even more, and my expectations are sky high for Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought, the third volume in the CLOCKWORK CENTURY, which is scheduled for publication on September 28, 2010 via Tor.