The gatling Rattler
fed chains from a carpet bag
sings on his shoulder.
This is part of the "Clockwork Century" series-- world?-- that Priest is writing these days, along with the utterly enjoyable Boneshaker & frightfully fun Dreadnought. A brief aside about the latter-- I know it is just because they are both books about trains & utterly different in every other respect, but I can't help but associate it with Iron Council in my head. I have been waiting for this for some time-- the publication date was bumped a cycle or so-- & it arrived in my greedy little talons right when I needed something to dig into. I started it yesterday evening on the train & just finished it a little while ago. Yeah for ripping yarns-- I think that it the term, yes? The "Clockwork Century" is what you might call Steampunk, if you weren't too picky with your genres; it is a little bit pre-Dieselpunk, a little bit post-Victoriana. If they weren't set mostly on the coasts, you might call them Weird West stories-- which is maybe the most apt. It is more Slipstream than symbolic; the technology is speculative, big & improbably clanky, but within the realms of some sort of plausibility. Well, other than the zombies. You know what, I'm going to go ahead & say Weird West. You've got your escaped slaves & redeemed Confederates; your Texas Marshals & mad scientists; your Indian braves & Pinkertons.
Priest has a knack for writing from the rough edges in a way that doesn't ruffle any feathers. A lot of writers take the setting as an excuse to marginalize already marginalized people-- "of course there aren't any black characters, this is the Civil War!"-- but Priest doesn't take the easy way out. Sure, there is racism, sure there is sexism, but her characters exist in the mud & the blood & the beer along with it. & they aren't the exceptional characters, the lone black man no one dares say anything to or the woman who wears pants & people think it is cute. No, they've got the whole gamut. Especially her female characters-- I mean, no duh the modern female author writes plausible female characters-- but especially so. We've got the epitome of the mother who'll do anything for her son in Boneshaker, which Priest pulls off without resorting to cliche or easy terrain. You've got the civilian drawn into war in Dreadnought, & Priest resists the urge to make her the secret tough guy. Nope, she still puts her head down & hides when the bullets fly-- not because she's a woman or a coward but because people who don't duck & cover end up dead. In Clementine you get the competent character, the woman who'll use her wiles or her derringer, as the case may be. Because you've seen Miz Priest pull off a wide gamut, it is easy to fall into suspension of disbelief. To trust her writing. & yep, you get the casual sexism; from the outside, & you get the internal rejection of it.
The other act in the novel is a black captain of an airship, & his all black crew. This isn't something the book takes for granted-- quite the opposite. A "Negro" crew is the exception & it impacts who the characters are & how they move through the narrative. The big things-- "you can't come in, Whites only"-- are easy, but it the little things that really sell this. To me, I mean; I'm a white guy, so I'm maybe not the best judge of this. Still, the scene where a fellow says to the three black men "[c]ould I offer any of you boys a sip?" while pouring a drink, to which the captain replies "...[y]ou don't have ten years on me, old man, & I'm no boy of yours." Yikes, dang. That rings true, doesn't it? It got me at least. & the parts in which the novel invokes inter-racial sexuality & resulting lynch mobs; well it does it with a light touch, without pitchforks & torches, but just pointing out its reality is sobering. The book (mostly) alternates chapters between the wily female spy & the black airship captain; that format really worked for me. Her others have had a few viewpoint shifts, but the back & forth volley I think was solid, & worked for Priest's writing style. In the end math? I think I liked Dreadnought better, but only by a smidge.