High Priest(ess) of steampunk

Steampunk is kind of heard to explain.

Remember the rivet-covered, steam-powered flying saucers and such in the old 1960s “Wild, Wild West” TV series? Or the giant mechanical spider in the awful big-screen adaptation of the series, starring Will Smith?

Wait, let’s back up. I’m not sure anybody wants to remember that widescreen nightmare.

Anyway, steampunk — and the genre of fiction that bears that name — is, for the most part, a fanciful recreation of the latter half of the 1800s and early 1900s. Cowboys ride horses and use six-shooters and people travel on trains, but dirigibles are commonplace, people with missing limbs brandish elaborate false appendages and coal-or-steam-or-pedal-powered engines of destruction are the latest weapons of war.

Enter Cherie Priest.

Priest is a blogger and author of several works of fantastic fiction that falls into the “urban fantasy” category, where vampires and werewolves clash with criminals in big-city settings. I’m going out on a limb somewhat there, because I’ve just started reading one of Priest’s urban fantasy books, “Bloodshot,” so I’m not exactly sure what her books in that genre are all about.

But I can speak authoritatively about her steampunk books.

Priest isn’t the only person writing steampunk right now, certainly, but she’s one of the top practitioners. And her “Clockwork Century” series is not to be missed.

Priest’s steampunk series is set in the American 1880s, but one that’s markedly different from what we find in history books.

For one thing, the Civil War is dragging on. The battle between the North and South has been prolonged by the meddling of other parties, most notably the Republic of Texas, whose oil wealth and martial might — symbolized by the Rangers — have mustered on the side of the Confederacy.

Motivated by war and the profits to be had, inventors and captains of industry have pushed the 19th century’s technology and perfected lighter-than-air ships, trains bristling with armament, submarines and, most impressively, walking suits of armor.

Priest’s characters — many of them strong women, including a widow searching for her son in a ravaged city landscape, a nurse trying to make her way across country to find her father and a New Orleans madam eager to help the North and shake loose the bonds of the Confederacy — move through her plots in a matter-of-fact manner, wielding a gun or feminine wiles with equal skill.

Oh, and did I mention the zombies?

Yes, Priest has complicated matters by creating a wave of the walking dead — or rotters, as they’re called in their place of origin, Seattle.

In “Boneshaker,” Priest explains how the zombies were created. A drilling machine released a toxic gas from the bowels of the earth under Seattle. Much of the city’s population fled. Others turned into rotters, shambling through the streets in search of human flesh. Others Seattle-ites fled to the underground beneath the city, where they live in tunnels safe from the toxic gas because of an intricate series of tubes and pumps.

If they go topside, they must wear gas masks to avoid turning into rotters. And they must be on guard not only from the zombies but the criminal element that thrives in the city.

In “Dreadnought,” we get our first glimpse of how the zombie plague is spreading. Drug makers and dealers are distilling the gas and turning it into “sap,” a highly addictive substance that eventually turns its users into the walking dead. The title refers to an especially deadly war train on which much of the story unfolds.

In “Ganymede,” the addiction has spread to New Orleans, which is a hotbed of Civil War intrigue thanks to a missing submarine and efforts to get it in the hands of the Union.

One of the most fun elements of Priest’s books is how she weaves characters through all her stories. The protagonist of “Boneshaker” is a supporting player in “Ganymede,” while the nurse and a Texas Ranger from “Dreadnought” show up in “Ganymede.”

Priest is a nimble writer. If you’re worried that her books would be written in a pseudo-Victorian-era style, don’t be. While her characters are not anachronisms, they have enough modern sensibilities to be completely relatable.

The books are fun, fast reads. (One of my few quibbles can be blamed on my aging eyes. The print in the paperback editions is sepia-toned. It might be appropriate to set the mood for the period in which the stories take place, but it makes it a bit hard to read.) Priest keeps the plot moving and throws in just enough twists and turns to surprise the reader.

Priest announced some big news right around the end of November. “Boneshaker” has been  acquired for adaptation as a movie. It’s probably not surprising, considering how hot zombies are right now, with “The Walking Dead” a hit on TV and in comics and “World War Z” coming out later this year.

Besides, who can resist the pitch — included in the announcement — that “Boneshaker” was like “Jules Verne meets ‘Resident Evil?'”

Movies are tricky things. Sometimes they completely miss the flavor of the books on which they’re based. Sometimes they get everything right.

Priest’s steampunk stories — and more of them are on the way — are as entertaining as any movie adaptation could be. Don’t wait for the big-screen version.

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