Cherie Priest has been the best working purveyor of steampunk – the genre that mixes sci-fi, alternate history and 19th-century technology with a twist – for several years now with her “Clockwork Century” novels.
The series – and if you haven’t tried it, you should – is set around 1880 and presents an America that is pretty radically different from the history books we know: The Civil War still rages on, with battlefield skirmishes and Union and Confederate spies crossing borders in clandestine missions. Often the action plays out in a series of skirmishes not only on the ground, in horrifying lethal “dreadnaught” locomotives, and in the air in high-flying dirigibles.
As the war rages on, another menace proves to be a great threat. In the first book, “Boneshaker,” a digging machine opens up a fissure in the earth in Seattle that releases a yellow gas. The gas turns humans into flesh-eating creatures and, even more fiendishly, is used as the basis of a highly-addictive drug that soldiers and other combatants on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line willingly ingest, creating even more zombies.
By the time of “Fiddlehead,” Priest has brought these storylines together in an explosive climax. Gideon Bardsley, an ex-slave and scientist, has created the Fiddlehead, a steampunk computer that predicts that neither the Union nor the Confederacy will win the war. Both sides, weakened by nearly two decades of fighting, will be lost in a tide of zombies that will not only destroy the United States but the entire North American continent.
It’s up to Bardsley and Pinkerton Detective Agency operative Belle Boyd and their associates to stay alive long enough to get word out about Fiddlehead’s forecast – and stop the machinations of a war profiteer who hopes to use the zombie gas to not only make money but deal a devastating blow.
“Fiddlehead” is a fun thriller that not only brings back many of the characters from Priest’s earlier books – one of the author’s techniques is to mix up her sprawling cast, making some the leading players in some books and the supporting players in the next – but a couple of important figures who have been just outside the parameters of the page in the earlier books: Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant.
In Priest’s storyline, Lincoln wasn’t killed that April night in Ford’s Theatre, but he was seriously injured and had to leave the presidency. By the time “Fiddlehead” takes place, Lincoln and wife Mary are patrons of scientist Bardsley and thus leading the campaign to spread the word about the horrors of the zombie gas.
And Grant, wearing down in his fourth term in the White House and fighting his own demons, joins with Lincoln in turning back the murderous challenge from the war profiteers and behind-the-scenes manipulators who want to keep the war going.
Priest has created an engaging set of fictional characters but, to me, really shines in her treatment of fictionalized versions of real-life characters like Lincoln and Grant. Maybe it’s no surprise that readers would find themselves rooting for Lincoln, a beloved historical figure. But the Lincoln that Priest presents here is scarred and tough and scrappy as you would hope for.
Priest’s books are fun and clever and fast-moving fun-house-mirror looks at American history. With zombies. What more could we ask?