"FIDDLEHEAD" by Cherie Priest. Tor. 368 pages. $9.60.
The Clockwork Century is winding down, but things are still all screwed up.
The Civil War continues to drag on, 20 years after it began. Stories about herds of "zombies" have been trickling out of the West for years, but now they're closer to home, coming out of armies on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
President Ulysses S. Grant, in his third term, remains an alcoholic but he's trying to do the right thing - and at least he's getting decent advice from Abraham Lincoln, who managed to survive an assassination attempt, but only has partial use of his body and must roll around in a mechanized wheelchair. Grant, Lincoln and their cadre must decide whether to launch a plan touted as a way to instantly win the war with a Union victory. But the plan and its supporters are highly suspicious and the whole thing reeks.
Chattanooga's Cherie Priest has said "Fiddlehead" is the last in her Clockwork Century series, a deft, compelling blend of steampunk and zombies and alternative history that started with 2009's phenomenal "Boneshaker" and has continued through five more novels. If "steampunk" doesn't mean anything to you, think Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" or Alan Moore's "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (either of which, hopefully, will ring some bells).
It's OK that Priest is moving on. She's left a fine, highly imaginative body of work behind with the series, and it's probably time to start something new just to keep the creativity flowing.
In "Fiddlehead," the title refers to a steampunk computer that predicts the Civil War is not going to end well for either side. The zombies, don't you know. Yet, while both sides know about the creatures - which seem to be multiplying because of a new drug being used by soldiers on both sides of the conflict - both Union and Confederate politicians have their heads in the sand, insisting that it's the other side that has the zombie problem, not theirs. Yes, it's much like today's politicians, no doubt an intentional bit of symbolism on Priest's part.
Beginning with a bang-up (pun intended) action scene, "Fiddlehead" quickly settles into more of a spy thriller than action-adventure, with various people in various places (including Chattanooga), trying to cobble together all the parts of the war-ending plan to make sure they fit. They don't.
Like her other Clockwork Century novels, "Fiddlehead" moves quickly, mainly because the plot covers only a few days in real time. Things happen quickly because they must. Yet even within that fast-moving plot, Priest does a nice job of developing most of her main characters beyond cardboard-cutout status, diving inside their heads to pull out emotions and motivations.
Grant, for instance, knows he's an alcoholic and at times berates himself for it, but he also knows that he can't function without it. Gideon Bardsley, the inventor of Fiddlehead, is arrogant, impatient and brutally blunt, a former slave who's completely confident that he's the smartest person in whatever room he's in (which he very well may be). Yet he also shows moments of compassion and self-awareness as to his shortcomings, not that they change his general behavior.
Terrific at action scenes, which she writes with electricity and muscle, Priest also has a nice touch with dialogue. Conversations are sharp and witty and what's left unsaid is as interesting as what is. And, truth be told, there aren't a lot of everything-blows-up-real-good action scenes in "Fiddlehead," which focuses more on political intrigue and behind-the-scenes machinations than things exploding, although there certainly are moments when fireballs erupt, bullets fly and tension mounts.
In the Clockwork Century books, Priest has displayed a remarkable imagination, inventing a new world that still retains familiar touchstones, combining the bizarre with the familiar. Now that she says she's done with it, it'll be interesting to see where her imagination flies to now.