In the Hugo-nominated Boneshaker, Cherie Priest simultaneously introduced “The Clockwork Century” (an alternate-history, steampunk’d version of 19th century America) and established herself as the “queen of steampunk”. In the novella Clementine, Priest expands the scope of her unique setting to include the Confederate mid-west and creates a fast-and-furious action adventure story full of the sparkling dialog and weird science one expects from one of the genre’s best practitioners.
Croggon Hainey is a runaway slave, bank robber, pirate, and captain of the airship Free Crow. He and his rough-and-tumble crew are chasing fellow pirate Felton Brink across the country in a stolen airship. Brink has stolen the Free Crow, rechristened it Clementine, and is running from its “owner” (Hainey stole the ship first, after all) in order to reach an unknown destination near the Mason-Dixon line. Maria Isabella “Belle” Boyd is an actress and disgraced Confederate spy who has joined the esteemed Pinkerton Agency. Her first assignment: make sure that an airship called Clementine arrives at its Union destination. The fact that Hainey’s return to CSA custody may buy back some of the Confederacy’s good graces is another motivator for the practical-minded Boyd. Various revelations along way compel the spy and the pirate to work together to intercept the Clementine and stop a Union general from unleashing a doomsday weapon on the Confederacy in order to end the decades-long Civil War.
Readers of Priest’s Boneshaker should recognize the character of Croggon Hainey as well as the airship Clementine. Further, the character of “Belle” Boyd is based on an actual historical figure. While knowledge of these facts adds spice, it isn’t necessary to be familiar with these characters in order to enjoy Clementine. The pacing is brisk, as befits a novella, which adds to the tension of the already tight plot. Also, as in Boneshaker, Priest’s strength is in her crackling dialog and her wonderful depictions of strong protagonists. This a rogue’s tale told well, with morally ambivalent characters that the reader nevertheless roots for. Most importantly, while the characters and setting have depth, Priest doesn’t waver from the rollicking, pulpy, fun of her plot. This is a wonderful, quick, read that makes one hungry for the author’s next full-length “Clockwork” novel, Dreadnought.