Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Review: Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest

I've mentioned it before, a while ago (an age ago in blog time), but Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century series is my favorite steampunk book series.  I think that anyone who is interested in steampunk and willing to read a novel should read the first in the series, Boneshaker.  And then read the rest, because you will want to.  So if you haven't, then go, do that.

Fiddlehead is the 6th book in the series, and possibly the last.  It certainly functions as an ending point and a reflection of the series as a whole.

The Clockwork Century is different from most book series in that each novel within it could stand on its own.  They each have different protagonists and POV characters.  They are set in the same universe, but often in very different settings within the US.  Stories and side characters cross from one book to another, but they are mostly self-contained.  <i>Fiddlehead</i>, in contrast, has a broader view of events than any of the others.  Fiddlehead, by the nature of its story and characters, has a view (if dim at times) of the whole of America.

Of course in this universe, it is an America that's been in a Civil War for 20 years.  A war that is slowly being overtaken by another problem: a plague of walking dead.  So <i>Fiddlehead</i> is a book about finding some kind of resolution amidst this chaos.  Prominent side characters include President Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln in a steam-powered wheelchair.  The POV characters are the freed slave/inventor Gideon Bardsley and Belle Boyd, former confederate spy and now Pinkerton agent.

Although these books are filled with lovely steampunk world-building (the airship pirates, the steam-powered and diesel-powered war machines, the thinking engine code-named "Fiddlehead") it's their undeniable American-ness that I find so appealing.  Before Cherie Priest, it was often said that steampunk didn't belong in America, that real steampunk was British, etc.  There is seriously no way someone can make that argument today, and I WORSHIP Cherie Priest for making that happen.

Having the Civil War as a backdrop for steampunk zombie stories makes everything incredibly complex, in the way that the war was complex and continues to invoke ambiguous emotions in many Americans today.  And the author is also spectacular at creating side characters that are simply breathtaking in their complicated uniqueness.  Escaped slave airship pirate mercenaries, backwoods smugglers/underground railroad operators, incredible Confederate nurses, Texas Rangers... Her characters are so diverse and so original that they just feel uniquely American to me.

To bring this to some kind of conclusion, <i>Fiddlehead</i> is one of the strongest novels in the series, without a doubt.  The series has a couple of weak moments, but overall it's so worth the time to spend in one of the best thought out worlds I've ever encountered.  <i>Fiddlehead</i> serves as an appropriate end to the series, although I personally DESPERATELY hope we eventually get more in this universe.  Please?


  1. It is interesting to hear that before Cherie Priest people said Steampunk could not be American, because I have seen so many American Steampunk tales, now, it is hard to think it was ever reviled. I think it would be interesting to see more Australian Steampunk too. New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox wrote an amazing Gaslamp fantasy series (Dreamhunter series) that is, I think set in NZ as the places seem vaguely familiar and also wrote a short story in the islands. The online story The Dead Isle by Sam Starbuck is about Americans visiting the 'dead isle' of Australia and has a combination of techology and magic. Personally, I actually really like British gaslamp fantasy and Steampunk, because I feel much more at home there than this weird, hot island. It is heatwave weather here at the moment, horrible!

    1. I sympathize, being a Texan. I never wanted to identify with the whole cowboy thing, so Victorian England was definitely an escape. Now I appreciate Western elements in steampunk a lot more, though, and like to see diversity of settings.

      But yes, people definitely said that all steampunk has to be set in England, or English. People still sometimes feel the need to put on fake British accents when dressing steampunk, which annoys me most of the time.