Dreadnought by Cherie Priest – Review

Book Jacket:

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.

You can read an excerpt here.


I can’t remember the last time I read such a fantastically old school story-on-a-train. Most people hear steampunk and automatically think Victorian, but this book is an all American frontier tale. Yes, it has zombies, automatons and dirigibles, and happily Priest seamlessly blends these disparate parts into her narrative, but at its soul Dreadnought is a stylistic take on the classic western – wheels, frontier, and grit.

From the methods of transportation, to the smells and sounds of the front lines during the Civil War, Dreadnought delivers an encompassing world, brimming with period detail and flavor. So often in steampunk I find myself missing that true period feel, the language and culture of a different era, but Priest delivers in spades, painting a wonderfully complete picture of time and place. I absolutely loved the texture of this book.

In terms of plot, there is a simple structure to this story: Mercy getting herself to Seattle, come hell or high water. Tied up with her difficulties heading west were tantalizing hints of two mysteries: the mystery surrounding the mission of the train she ends up on – the infamous Union engine, the Dreadnought – and the mystery behind a missing force of Mexicans. Sadly, both mysteries never really added up to much – one mystery is solved with one easy reveal, and the other really isn’t a mystery for anyone who has read the back cover of Boneshaker, let alone the whole book. Frankly I think it was all more smoke than substance – I kept waiting for the people on the train to turn on each other, for double dealing and accusations, for a twist or big reveal, but it never happened. Maybe I’ve read too much Agatha Christie, or maybe I just wanted too much from a book that is unabashedly a straight up actioner, but when an author imbues her story with such lovely notes of intrigue, secrets, suspicion and paranoia, I really, really want it all to add up to more than mere grace notes.

As for the character work, the cast is just as colorful as you could wish, and Mercy’s forthright nature is impossible not to love. Priest had a lot of fun playing the prickly opinions of her characters off one other, on all sides of various social lines – Union/Rebel, black/white, Texan/Mexican, and male/female. Watching Mercy navigate the cultural minefields of opinion and loyalties was easily my favorite part of this book – and yet, while Mercy is a fun, plucky nurse, I also felt like she was too defined by her job description, and the same goes for the soliders, the Texas Ranger, and the upper crust Yanks. I can’t say they were stereotypical, because they weren’t, but I just felt like I never got below the surface of anyone – but again, that only made me feel even more that this story is an actioner more that anything else.

And what action there is – cover to cover, this book is old school gunslinging, thank you ma’am. In terms of pacing, things start out a bit slow, in a deliberate, old school western/noir kind of way, but once Mercy gets on the train the momentum picks up nicely. There’s just something wonderfully fun about action confined to small spaces – be in trains, airplanes, or subs – and the attacks build tension nicely, leading to a climactic battle that is pure western fun, bullets flying everywhere. I did find myself thinking that Mercy’s part in the action quickly got repetitive. Yes, she’s a nurse, but when all she does is run up and down the train, patching up people who mostly die anyway, it seemed rather one note – I liked it the first five times, but then it started to pall. I also found myself choking a little on the all too conveniently timed arrival of certain Mexicans at a critical juncture, but still, the action carried me along regardless.

After the action comes to a rousing end, the denouement quickly brings Mercy face to face with her father and the reality of what Seattle has become, connecting this story to the larger mythology of the series. I think people familiar with the previous books will take more away from the ending than I did (having not read the other books), because there were clearly characters I should have recognized and references to things that I was missing, but I still think the ending works just fine, in terms of only this story.

So I did enjoy this book, though it vexed me at times with its plain, straight forward nature. The action goes down like warm buttered cornbread, and the world building is downright phenomenal, with fully cohesive steampunk elements. If Mercy gets herself another book, I will definitely be reading it – but though I like and respect this story, I’m not in love with it. It’s good, no question, but I just kept wishing for more.

Byrt Grade: A-

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Jawas Read, Too says:

Dreadnought is the third Clockwork Century book by Cherie Priest and, in my opinion, the most polished of the bunch. The writing is at its most acutely observational; the dialogue affects the most convincing variety of personalities from across young America; and the plot offers yet another adventure story that’s hard to put down. It’s a rollicking and dangerous train ride across the country, as much mystery as it is fantasy with shades of horror thrown in for fun.

The Seattle Times says:

On a line-by-line basis Priest’s prose is sometimes awkward, with repetitive constructions and a few ill-chosen words. Still, “Dreadnought” offers plenty of fun: fast-paced battle scenes, thundering locomotives and the gem of the book, its heroine. Nurse Mercy is a swearing, sweating, pistol-packing ex-farm girl who swabs away her patients’ blood with barely a flinch.

Mike Perschon for Tor.com says:

Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought just tied Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan for my “best-self-conscious-work-of-steampunk.” Dreadnought is everything I loved about the first third of Boneshaker, without any of the slower-pacing that plagued the remaining pages…a steampunk Trains, Planes and Automobiles as Mercy rushes to the West Coast via river, rail, and of course, airship.