War is Hell – Especially for a Nurse
It’s probably important to state right off the bat that I wasn’t a huge fan of Boneshaker. There are several reasons for this, and it should be noted that I read it, and didn’t listen to it, and that may have contributed to my overall feelings. But I like Cherie Priest’s work – in particular, I loved the Eden Moore Southern Gothic Ghost story “Four and Twenty Black Birds” (and if it was available on Audible, I would snatch up that series in its entirety ASAP).
All that to say I came to Dreadnought with some apprehension. So I was thrilled that Priest (and Reading) defied my expectations, and totally rocked me with this book.
There are two keys in play here. First is our protagonist: Nurse Mercy Lynch. I’m not as well read as I’d like to be, but I can’t think of any other SF/F book whose protagonist is a nurse during a war/battlefield. The book opens in a hospital, and closes in another one. It’s set in an alternate history where the American Civil War has lasted over 15 years. While Mercy makes her way across a country fighting against itself, her expertise will be inevitably called upon while everything’s going to hell around her. She’s never far from the wounded and dying soldiers left in the war’s wake. That’s something we don’t see a lot of in genre fiction, and it gives an incredible weight to the violence and action in the story – from her nurse’s perspective, for every great thrilling scene or set piece, Mercy has to deal with the fallout from it all. If bullets fly, her hands will soon be covered in blood because she’s applying pressure to the wounds. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic at all when I say that Mercy Lynch may be one of my favorite female protagonists.
From a hospital to traveling through a moving battlefield, the first few hours of listening to this are just incredibly intense – really, some of the most intense I’ve heard in a while. That’s not to say Dreadnought isn’t a fun book – it is. But I was just surprised (and pleased) by how much weight the fun packed. This book does not let you look away from the effects of war and violence, and I appreciate it for that.
The second, and perhaps most obvious key, this being an audiobook, is Kate Reading’s incredible reading. I enjoyed it so much, I’m halfway tempted to go back and give Boneshaker another shot. Reading’s reading of Mercy is just absolutely perfect – absolutely nailing the tough, weary nurse’s voice. Her lack of care for social conventions, in particular her profanity around a bunch of men (and sometimes women) who find her to be unladylike, is delightful. And she does solid work with the male characters, specifically Union Captain MacGruder and Texas Ranger Horatio Kornman. Unquestionably, the supporting characters, and their interactions with Mercy, are part of what makes this book so enjoyable.
Yes, there are zombies in this book as well, and I found them far more terrifying in this book. In Boneshaker, they’re usually there – an army of undead rushing after our heroes. In Dreadnought, Priest goes a different route, showing us the horror they’ve wrought well before we actually encounter them, which creates a rising sense of dread throughout the novel.
All in all, this book stunned me in the best way possible, and I hope Priest can continue delivering books in the Clockwork Century of this caliber. Hopefully, Reading will eventually come back to read more of them.