In the North America of 1879, the American Civil War is still going on. A deadly drug from the Pacific Northwest is killing people, then converting them into undead monsters. While technological advances burgeoned during the war, both sides are depleted of soldiers, revenue and hope. This conflict can’t continue, especially with the drug disease making its way to the highly populated north-and-southeast. President U.S. Grant, finishing up his second term and preparing a run for his third, has an opportunity to end it once and for all, by unleashing a devastating weapon that will shock the Confederacy into surrender before any more people die. At least, that’s how it’s been described to him.
At the beginning of THE CLOCKWORK CENTURY series, Cherie Priest said that she would end the war by the end of the series. She didn’t say it would be pretty. In Fiddlehead, all the forces are gathered for a decisive ending to the conflict — or a catastrophic choice that will visit a true Zombie Apocalypse on the continent, or maybe even the world.
Priest gives us some new characters, including historical ones. Abraham Lincoln, who was severely wounded but survived an assassination attempt, and Ulysses S. Grant are two. Gideon Bardsley, a brilliant, prickly scientist who was a slave, is another. Priest brings back some old favorites, too. Maria “Belle” Boyd, former Confederate spy turned Pinkerton operative, is back and in her usual form. Croggan Hainey and his airship the Free Crow deliver an important message in the story, and Maria runs into a few other characters we’ve seen in the earlier books. They are all pitted against a villain who is ruthless, brilliant and cold; who has calculated that human deaths are less important that company profits, and who is playing both sides against each other.
Priest has several strong female characters in this book. Boyd herself is determined and tough. Captain Sally Tompkins, a nurse who manages the largest and most successful military hospital in the south, is silenced and literally dragged out of a room when she tries to warm the southern congress about the dangers of the “saffron” drug (or gas) and the undead plague. Captain Sally and Mercy, the nurse who went to Seattle in Dreadnought, are both instrumental in bringing forward the truth of the devastating plague. Their information, combined with the projections Bardsley’s calculating engine, the Fiddlehead, gives of the spread of the disease, galvanize the north into action. The risk is that it may be the wrong action.
The conflict in the story happens on two fronts; Maria’s foray into Confederate Territory, and a prolonged siege in Washington DC, as Lincoln, his Pinkerton body guard, President Grant and Bardsley struggle to hold off an attack of the villain’s henchmen, ably assisted by Mary Lincoln who is a terrible shot but a very determined woman.
The most interesting character development here is Grant, who starts off as a vacillating drunk, out of place and over his head. Priest walks Grant through the kind of addictive rationalizations many of us recognize. This is his first drink of the afternoon, he thinks, or at least, of late afternoon. A few pages later, he pours his first drink of the evening. Often, in meetings with his cabinet, he pours a drink and a few moments later notices the glass is empty, with no memory of drinking it. Grant is a weak president who knows he’s weak, and discovers that his Cabinet is corrupt. When he is confronted with the “solution” to the war, he knows it is wrong, but doesn’t know how to stop it. At Lincoln’s house, where he is holding off men who mean to kill all of them, his strength comes back as he remembers being a general. I was surprised by how much I cared and how gratified I was by Grant’s redemption.
Priest is willing to give her main characters unpopular opinions, and create a coalition where not everyone gets along. In talking to her boss Allan Pinkerton, Maria tells him, “In my more cynical hours I don’t know who to resent more: the slave owners for the peculiar institution, or the slaves themselves for what it’s cost to end it.”
Pinkerton counters that the statement is hardly fair. It is hardly fair, carrying “victim blaming” to a whole new level, but it is believable that Maria, raised in the south and mourning the loss of everything good about her homeland, might feel this way. (There is historical evidence that Lincoln himself held a similar attitude.)
Maria goes on to remind us that she has grown to respect many freed slaves, and the reader knows she is thinking of Hainey. Maria is a complicated and believable character. Gideon Bardsley, a freed slave who paid to free his mother and nephew, only to see them kidnapped by the villain and taken back into slave territory, is also being realistic when he warns Lincoln angrily not to trust Maria, who is a Confederate no matter who she works for. In the situation Priest has created, these are the normal reactions these characters would have toward one another. Trust does not develop over one conversation or one witty quip.
I’m making it sound like it’s a character study, but there is plenty of action and plenty of harsh justice meted out at the end. I was shocked — shocked! — when Maria tried to take justice into her own hands at the end of the book… but very satisfied.
One thing Priest does well in this series, that other steampunk writers would do well to consider, is make changes in the timeline that don’t just snap back to “our” reality when it’s convenient. Priest keeps her promise at the end of this book, but the United States of America that’s been created isn’t ours. Technologically advanced, geographically smaller, and seriously impoverished, this nation still has zombies to fight. Readers can imagine plenty more happening in this world. Or, for that matter, Priest could write some more things. Fiddlehead is one of the stronger entries in this imaginative series.