Review: ‘Dreadnought’ by Cherie Priest

Nurse Mercy Lynch is elbows deep in bloody laundry at a war hospital in Richmond, Virginia, when Clara Barton comes bearing bad news: Mercy’s husband has died in a POW camp. On top of that, a telegram from the west coast declares that her estranged father is gravely injured, and he wishes to see her. Mercy sets out toward the Mississippi River. Once there, she’ll catch a train over the Rockies and―if the telegram can be believed―be greeted in Washington Territory by the sheriff, who will take her to see her father in Seattle.

Reaching the Mississippi is a harrowing adventure by dirigible and rail through war-torn border states. When Mercy finally arrives in St. Louis, the only Tacoma-bound train is pulled by a terrifying Union-operated steam engine called the Dreadnought. Reluctantly, Mercy buys a ticket and climbs aboard.

What ought to be a quiet trip turns deadly when the train is beset by bushwhackers, then vigorously attacked by a band of Rebel soldiers. The train is moving away from battle lines into the vast, unincorporated west, so Mercy can’t imagine why they’re so interested. Perhaps the mysterious cargo secreted in the second and last train cars has something to do with it?

Mercy is just a frustrated nurse who wants to see her father before he dies. But she’ll have to survive both Union intrigue and Confederate opposition if she wants to make it off the Dreadnought alive.

This is the second book in the Clockwork Century series (I reviewed the first book here). You don’t need to read the first book before this one, though it wouldn’t hurt and will give you some of the backstory around characters we only see in passing in this one.

The series is an alternative version of the American civil war, but with steampunk tech and zombies. It’s basically made for me, you guys!

I really liked the first book, Boneshaker, but I loved Dreadnought. Part of that is because it’s not a split point-of-view book — I don’t mind those, but they aren’t my favourite. Another part is that we don’t have a sometimes-annoying teenage boy as one of the point-of-view characters. (Sorry, Zeke.) A third part was that the zombie threat is mostly the “creeping dread” kind than the teeming horde kind, which was sinister and chilling and kept me hooked.

Mercy was a delightful leading lady: a young nurse who is by turns ladylike and swears like a trooper (learned in the hospital, no doubt). She isn’t afraid to take charge when direction is needed, and she has a bedside manner that is both disarming and tough when it needs to be.

She knows how to shoot a gun, but almost all of Mercy’s involvement in the story’s action revolves around her nursing others as best she can in a war zone (or a zombie apocalypse). I found that part of the story fascinating and disturbing in turns — we aren’t exactly talking modern medicine here. And the story is so action-packed that Mercy definitely gets a lot of chances to work her trade.

Briar, the main character in Boneshaker, is still my fave due to the single mother solidarity thing, but Mercy runs a close second.

This series hasn’t contained any romance so far (though I’ve already started the third book and there a charming development brewing). But if you’re okay with that and love spec fic, Dreadnought is definitely worth checking out.

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