When Hollywood makes a movie of Ganymede — and they have to — I hope they subtitle it “The Battle of Barataria Bay.” That sequence comes near the end of Cherie Priest’s latest CLOCKWORK CENTURY novel, and is fasten-your-seatbelt, grip-the-arms-of-your-chair exciting.
Priest’s books always feature strong women, and in Ganymede, the main character is Josephine Early. Josephine lives in New Orleans, running an upscale bordello. Nearly twenty years into the American civil war, the Confederacy is having trouble holding New Orleans and has called on its political ally the Republic of Texas to help occupy the city. Early’s hometown is filled with brown-shirted Lone Star soldiers and administrators, and she has grown to hate them. As a free woman of color, she is all too conscious of how easily she can lose that freedom just by traveling to the wrong state. For these reasons and others, she is spying for the Union, and her brother is leading a band of resistance fighters in the bayou. They have found the Ganymede, a vessel they believe will change the course of the war. It’s a ship that travels beneath the water and requires a special kind of pilot. Josephine knows one, and sends a telegram to Andan Cly.
Andan Cly is an airship pirate and smuggler who spends most of his time in the underground city of Seattle, in the Washington Territories. Cly is motivated for the first time to adopt a slightly less illegal lifestyle, because of his growing relationship with Briar Wilkes. This run to New Orleans will probably be his final act as an air pirate.
The Ganymede run is incredibly dangerous, but brown-shirts aren’t the only danger on the streets of New Orleans, as Joesphine finds out when she follows two Texian officers. They are mobbed by the Walking Dead on the waterfront. Josephine is nearly attacked herself, but assisted by one of New Orleans’s famous characters, Madame Marie Laveau. The Dead Who Walk, or “zombis” as Leveau names them, are increasing in number daily. No one in New Orleans knows their origin.
Ganymede parsed into three stories for me. The first is Josephine’s part of the Ganymede adventure. The second is the Ganymede run itself. The third section is the discovery of the zombis, and some theorizing about their origin. I thought this third part of the book was the choppiest, but the addition of Madame Laveau brought a convincing element of weirdness, and there is a section of the book, when Josephine is heading back to her house and trying to beat curfew, where Priest brilliantly evokes a strange, eldritch mood that culminates in a powerful and emotionally moving visual.
Ganymede itself is a wonderful, intriguing contraption, and one of my favorite bits in the book is the exquisite blind on the road to the bayou boys’ hideout, and the hideout itself, cleverly camouflaged. Priest creates the sense of southern speech without resorting to dialect, just by paying attention to the rhythm of the language. The writing here is some of Priest’s best: “Three were in uniform, three were not; but anyone who’d seen a Texian official knew the posture anywhere. Josephine recognized it as easily as the smell of baking bread.”
Houjin, Cly’s young apprentice, is a mechanical genius, stuffed to the brim with curiosity. “His passion for all things mechanical would draw him to the lake even if they told him it’d cost a dollar and he’d have to take a beating when he arrived.”
“The hands that clasped Josephine’s were as thin as twigs, despite the woman’s otherwise stout appearance. Gas lamplight twinkled on the silver of her rings, and on the red, blue and green of the gems or colored glass found therein. The queen smelled like sandalwood and sage, feathers and dust. And in her eyes, sunken with age, smoldered a deep, grim light.”
Her prose is so good that when Priest used anachronisms I found them jarring. Andan comments to himself that something “blew Josephine’s mind.” In the 1880s, really? This is as bad as if the characters suddenly shouted “Twenty-three skidoo” or something.
I have to forgive and forget this, though, because the epic air and sea battle for the Bay of Barataria blew my mind.
I think Priest is writing the best steampunk around right now. Her world teems with inventiveness, emotional tension and vivid action sequences. I recommend Ganymede.