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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Review: ‘Boneshaker’ by Cherie Priest

In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus was Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine born.

But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.

Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes. Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenaged boy to support, but she and Ezekiel are managing. Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history.

His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.

I can’t remember how I added Boneshaker to my TBR shelf on Goodreads, but I was recently looking for inspiration for something new to listen to on audiobook and came across it. So I gave it a go.

Boneshaker is an alternative history steampunk with zombies, which you can pretty much get from the blurb and is frankly what sold me on the book in the first place. It’s also a lightning-paced story with very little downtime or introspection, and a badass leading lady.

Let me just say how much I enjoyed Briar Wilkes. She’s had a rough life — a father who’s renowned throughout Seattle’s outskirts (ie the remaining part of the city, outside the zombie-filled walls) as being a criminal cop who conducted a jail break right before his death. Even worse, she’s the widow of Leviticus Blue, the man who unleased the Blight in what people think was an attempt to rob the banks in the heart of the original city. As a result, she’s the most despised woman in the outskirts, and it’s made her hard.

She’s also a fiercely protecitve single mother to a slightly brash and reckless teenage boy. And that was my favourite thing about her. I can’t recall the last time I read a piece of genre fiction where the main character is a mother to an older child. (Briar is in her mid-thirties.) She’s not a robot — she gets scared and feels sad, though she’s been conditioned by the world not to show it. More than anything, she’s scared of losing Zeke.

I feel that.

Zeke himself is more frustrating. For a boy who considers himself to be worldly, he is at times incredibly naive — and his tendency to backchat when he’s unsure of himself did make me clench my teeth more than once. But he’s at heart a good kid, and I can’t for a second argue with the characterisation, even if I did want to smack him at times.

The story is fast-paced; the characters rarely get to rest, and the zombie scenes are good enough that it was a mistake listening to one as I was wondering through the mall, let me tell you! (I was wearing headphones, at least, so I only scared myself.) The dialogue is at times a bit stilted in the way it’s expressed — not so much the lines themselves but the way they are presented, the order of ideas. I don’t know if this would’ve annoyed me more on paper, but in the audiobook format it wasn’t too bad.

I love quite a few of the side characters, especially the other two female ones (Angeline and Lucy), as well as Swakhammer. I’m hoping that the other books in the series let us catch up with them all, because they deserve more page time.

If you like rollicking adventure/survival stories set in a highly polluted city where the air can kill you and super-fast zombies want to eat you, then definitely give Boneshaker a try.

 


Review: ‘Leviathan’ by Scott Westerfeld

Prince Aleksander, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battletorn war machine and a loyal crew of men.

Deryn Sharp is a commoner, disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

With World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.

I can’t remember how Leviathan crossed my path. I think it might have been a sale on Audible? Regardless, I read some of the reviews and decided — despite my usual distaste for war fiction — to give Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk YA alternative history a go. The audiobook is narrated by Scottish actor Alan Cumming, whose accent gives the perfect voice to Deryn, an awesomely competent young adult heroine who shines as a new recruit in the British Air Service. But he also does an excellent Austrian accent for Alek, and his various British accents are also great.

Before I more talk about the characters, I have to mention Westerfield’s alternative world. Germany and Austria are “clankers”, countries that have embraced steampunk-type technology: oil-guzzling, smoke-blowing machines of various fantastical designs. Great Britain, Russia and a few other countries that are mentioned in passing are “Darwinists” who, instead of using technology, use genetically modified “fabricated” creatures in the same sorts of roles. (PETA would not approve of any of the Darwinist creations, and perhaps especially the Leviathan air ship, which is a huge whale modified to host bacteria that produce hydrogen so it can float, carrying humans underneath and within it. I shared Alek’s grossed out reaction to that last part.)

The Leviathan

Anyway, moving on: when Deryn gets whisked away on a rogue Huxley (a hydrogen-breathing floating squid — I’ll let that sink in) and is rescued by the Leviathan, she is drawn into a government diplomatic mission to Istanbul (not Constantinople *snigger*), to try and stop the Ottoman Empire from taking sides in the war.

The fact that Deryn is secretly a girl isn’t the focus of the story, by any means, which was a relief. For the most part, she is a member of the crew, invested in her ship’s wellbeing and surviving one disaster after the next. Because this is young adult and it’d be a rare book indeed that didn’t have some romance, she also slowly develops a crush on Alek that she doesn’t know what to do with.

I also enjoyed Alek’s point of view chapters. He spends the first little while being incredibly naive and somewhat foolish, but under the circumstances that was entirely believable and relatable. Over the course of the story, with the guidance of his cunning fencing master, Count Volger, and patient master mechanic, Master Clopp, Alek comes out of his over-protected shell and starts to make his own decisions — often ones that Volger doesn’t like.

There is a lot of action in this book, but the large-scale action sequences that I find boring in most war books aren’t present here. The chapters stay very tightly focused on either Deryn or Alek, so while there might be other things going on in a battle, we only see what they see. This approach — and the novelty of conducting a war using modified hawks and bats instead of small planes — kept me engrossed where other war fiction loses me.

My only real gripe with the story is that the ending seemed rather abrupt. But luckily, I bought the first two books in the trilogy at the same time, so as I write this I’m already halfway through the sequel. Yay!


Review: ‘The Rithmatist’ by Brandon Sanderson

More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Chosen by the Master in a mysterious inception ceremony, Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings—merciless creatures that leave mangled corpses in their wake. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles.

As the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy, Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students study the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing—kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery, one that will change Rithmatics—and their world—forever.

“Brandon Sanderson writes yet another novel full of amazing worldbuilding and story misdirection.” I fear I’m starting to sound like a bit of a broken record when it comes to his work, honestly. But it’s truuuuue.

Things that make The Rithmatist stand out from Sanderson’s usual fare are the target market (young adult) and the consequent reduction in the plot’s complexity from the typical Sanderson thousand-page monster. There are fight scenes, a little blood, and descriptions of some scary events, but otherwise this book would be suitable for younger teenagers.

The thing I loved most about The Rithmatist was the magical system, and … okay, yes, that is another pretty standard response from me when it comes to his work. In this case, the magic is derived from empowered geometry and art, drawn with chalk. Different shapes (circles, lines, sine waves) have different effects and can be combined in various ways depending on the strategy of the rithmatist. And simple creatures can be drawn that come to two-dimensional life and follow simple instructions. From such a straightforward premise emerge a quite complex series of strategies used in duelling and combat against the wild chalklings.

I have never been so excited about geometry in my life!

Joel is a glorified maths nerd. He has no particular interest in or aptitude for drawing chalklings (just as well, given he is also not a rithmatist) but is excellent at understanding and drawing the different patterns. He tends towards laziness and emotional insensitivity at the start of the story, but does improve as the tale progresses. Melody, a rithmatic student who is prone to overblown dramatics and is a master of chalklings but awful with rithmatic lines, is shunned by the other rithmatic students due to her incompetence (and, let’s be honest, her trying personality). I liked both of them, but was more fond of their introverted, kindly and conflict averse professor, Fitch.

Despite what you might assume, there is no romance in this book. Sanderson usually has a romantic plotline (although he tends towards awkwardness and the hottest anything might get is a chaste kissing scene), but not in this case. I suspect that Melody and Joel may get together down the track, especially given how regularly he notices that she’s pretty, but they at least become friends first, which I heartily endorse.

The mystery is of the whodunnit variety (I fell for the red herring; I’ll guess right next time, Sanderson, I swear). The Rithmatist isn’t as dark as his other young adult series, The Reckoners, but I preferred its mystery feel to the latter’s car chases and gun fights.

I definitely recommend this one!


Review: ‘Heart of Brass’ by Felicity Banks

heartofbrass_cover

Emmeline Muchamore is a well-bred young lady hiding explosive family secrets. She needs to marry well, and quickly, in order to keep her family respectable. But when her brass heart malfunctions, she makes a desperate choice to steal the parts she needs to repair it and survive.

She is unable to explain her actions without revealing she has a steam-powered heart, so she is arrested for theft and transported to Victoria, Australia — right in the midst of the Gold Rush.

Now that she’s escaped the bounds of high society, iron manacles cannot hold her for long.

The only metal that really matters is gold.

I nabbed this when I was at Conflux last month, partly because it’s Australian-set steampunk by a Canberra author but mostly because it’s a seriously beautiful-looking paperback. (Yes, I am that shallow!) Happily, Heart of Brass was worth the gamble.

In the space of a couple-hundred pages, we get to see Emmeline go from proper society lady who conforms to (most) social expectations while chafing at the restrictions they impose to convict and criminal rebelling against an unfair system. For the most part, her transition seems entirely natural, although there’s one particular incident that did have me raising my eyebrows a little — I just wasn’t convinced that such a bright young lady would do something so spontaneous and poorly thought out. Maybe it was that colonial influence.

I loved seeing all the steampunk elements in what could otherwise be considered historical fiction — everything from practical devices to silly fashion (wheels for shoes?! I’m so clumsy I’d break something for sure). The elements are well-integrated into the world rather than seeming strapped on. There’s also an element of magic; metals have different properties that influence the world around them in one way or another. It’s a little bit Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn in that regard, without seeming derivative.

Basically, this combination made me a happy, happy girl.

On the romance front, there isn’t much to speak of — Emmeline is attracted to different characters, but it would go very much against her character to see her shack up with someone early on. Still, it was obvious to me that she was bisexual from fairly early in the story, even though she doesn’t seem to realise it. I loved that element too.

In terms of what I didn’t love, there was really only one thing — this book is kinda short. I read it in paperback, and although I knew there was bonus material at the back, I didn’t expect that bonus material to be almost 100 pages. So when I got to the end of the story, I felt a bit like I’d had the rug pulled out from under me. I wanted moooooooore. Obviously this is a good thing, as I will definitely be buying the sequel. I want more Emmeline, Matilda and Patrick.

As for that bonus material, it’s a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story that tells the tale of one of the bit characters in Heart of Brass, the real-life champion of the Eureka Stockade, Peter Lalor. Although I was disappointed it didn’t show me more of the main characters’ and their story, I did spend a fun hour or so following up all the different story options and reading the Easter Eggs.

I’d definitely recommend Felicity Banks. She’s one to watch. (Also, as a side note, this is the most professionally produced book by a small press that I’ve ever seen. Odyssey Books definitely have game!)

brassheart_sml

Four stars


Review: ‘The Alloy of Law’ by Brandon Sanderson

The Alloy of Law

Centuries after the Mistborn trilogy, Scadrial is on the verge of modernity — railroads, electric street lights, and skyscrapers. Waxillium Ladrian can Push on metals with his Allomancy and use Feruchemy to become lighter or heavier at will. After 20 years in the dusty Roughs, in the city of Elendel, the new head of a noble house may need to keep his guns.

The Alloy of Law is the fourth book (of six) in the Mistborn series, but — because the series is divided into two trilogies — it’s actually the first book in the second trilogy. As a result, you don’t have to have read the preceding three books in order to make sense of this one (though the religious references won’t be as interesting if you don’t).

I’m in more than a little awe of Sanderson. The first three books were a somewhat traditional (though not really) epic fantasy series. The Alloy of Law is set 300 years later in the same world — a world where technology has advanced to something resembling the 19th century. There’s still magic, in the form of Allomancy and Feruchemy, the metal-based Mistborn magic system. But there are also guns, trains and electricity. As a result, in some ways this book defies characterisation. Is it steampunk? Fantasy? An alternate world Western set in the big city? I don’t know … and that’s always an exciting thing to find!

Wax is your traditional Western action hero (with superpowers): highly competent and with a tragedy in his past that means he shies away from love. Wayne is a hilarious and crass master of disguise who “trades” for things rather than stealing them (although the trades generally occur without the other party’s consent). Both of them are fun characters, though I didn’t enjoy them as much as Sazed, Breeze or Elend from the first three books.

Lady Marasi, the noblewoman who is studying to be a legal attorney, is a lot more interesting, to my mind. She’s easily embarrassed but also a crack shot with a rifle, and she has a crush on Wax from before she meets him. She and he are well-matched in terms of both their interests and their intelligence, so Wax’s denial of the fact she’s clearly perfect for him is a little frustrating.

Overall, this was a fun book, though a little bit more predictable and less compelling than the first trilogy was. There was only one plot twist I didn’t see coming, and I wasn’t as invested in it as maybe I should have been. (That could be a result of the fact I listened to this book on either side of my son breaking his arm and spending a night in hospital, though — I had other things on my mind!)

Still, I enjoyed The Alloy of Law and have already started on the next book, Shadows of Self.

Four-and-a-half stars


Review: ‘Endsinger’ by Jay Kristoff

Endsinger

A TREMBLING EARTH
The flames of civil war sweep across the Shima Imperium. With their plans to renew the Kazumitsu dynasty foiled, the Lotus Guild unleash their deadliest creation—a mechanical goliath known as the Earthcrusher, intended to unite the shattered Empire under a yoke of fear. With the Tiger Clan and their puppet Daimyo Hiro in tow, the Guild marches toward a battle for absolute dominion over the Isles.

A BROKEN REBELLION
Yukiko and Buruu are forced to take leadership of the Kagé rebellion, gathering new allies and old friends in an effort to unite the country against the chi-mongers. But the ghosts of Buruu’s past stand between them and the army they need, and Kin’s betrayal has destroyed all trust among their allies. When a new foe joins the war tearing the Imperium apart, it will be all the pair can do to muster the strength to fight, let alone win.

A FINAL BATTLE
The traitor Kin walks the halls of Guild power, his destiny only a bloody knife-stroke away. Hana and Yoshi struggle to find their place in a world now looking to them as heroes. Secret cabals within the Lotus Guild claw and struggle; one toward darkness, the other toward light. And as the earth splits asunder, as armies destroy each other for rule over an empire of lifeless ash and the final secret about blood lotus is revealed, the people of Shima will learn one last, horrifying truth.

There is nothing a mother won’t do to keep her children by her side.

Nothing.

Endsinger is the third and final book in The Lotus War trilogy by Aussie author Jay Kristoff. All the setup from the first two books—the various factions, wars, betrayals, rivalries and romances—comes to a head in Endsinger. That’s probably why the paperback was 661 pages. Seriously, there were times when, after reading for a couple of hours, I had to stop due to wrist strain. By the end I had to stick the cover together with sticky tape because the book was collapsing under its own weight!

If you’ve read the first two books in the series, you’ve already got an idea of what to expect from Jay’s style. His prose is beautifully, darkly descriptive, so much so that I half expected to get a chest infection from reading about Shima’s polluted air and soil. The Lotus Guild and its toxic chi industry—made from the Lotus Bloom they worship and adore—have driven the land over the edge, killed the animals and created great swathes of deadlands where nothing can survive.

(A note on the prose: if you’re the sort who prefers a straightforward style over lush metaphor, you might want to look at a sample of Jay’s writing before deciding whether it’s for you. It’s definitely a matter of taste: one person’s “descriptive” can be another’s “florid”.)

And, like the first two books, his story is bloody. He isn’t afraid to kill characters, which is only fitting. This is a war, after all. But there are a couple of particularly traumatic deaths in Endsinger. I won’t say who they are, obviously, but although I found them sad, they fall into the category of “noble sacrifice for a greater good”, which I’m okay with as a reader. It would be unrealistic if no one died.

Jay’s style is like a lot of epic fantasy, in that he tends to jump between characters, giving little bursts from different perspectives. During battle scenes, particularly, this can be four or five times in a chapter. But he doesn’t head hop within each scene, which is good; when he’s telling a story from a character’s perspective, he is faithful to that character, and manages to portray them as fully fledged people with their own motivations and desires, even the ones that only appear once or twice. (Even the puppy.)

I love the relationships between characters—especially between Yokiko and Buruu, although that’s been an ongoing thing and my adoration is therefore no surprise to me. I have a new favourite in Endsinger though, which is the street rat Yoshi. He’s learned from his (it must be said) rather stupid, cocky behaviour in the previous book, but he still has a bit of swagger there. I just loved his attitude.

Overall, my favourite part of Endsinger is the way all the loose threads are tied into a neat bow (probably made of flesh or intestines or something). There are a few eye-opening moments as we get to see what’s really been going on this whole time—things that were just part of the world in the first two books turn out to have been significant all along. I really admire the level of craft that went into achieving that.

I’ve seen some people shelve this as young adult on Goodreads, but I’d suggest it’s more for older teenagers and adults. Did I mention bloody?

Five stars