Friday, 19 August 2011


Cherie Priest

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.

Now that was tremendous! What a fabulous ride from beginning to end. This last year has put so many excellent books in front of me - Anno Dracula, the first Burton & Swineburne novel, to name just the first two that come to mind. This one carries on that winning streak.

This is my third visit to Priest's 'Clockwork Century' and whilst I very much enjoyed the other two this one was, for me, streets ahead. It's a romp of a book that never for a moment stands still. Mercy (a confederate nurse heading west to see her daddy in Seattle) leaves her job in a field hospital on her mammoth journey where via air, river and predominantly rail she experiences profound exposure to the politics, people and rigours of life on her continent.

She is an almost unlikely figure. A superheroine nurse unflappable and unstoppable yet as often being pulled along by the story she finds herself within as she is driving it. Her dynamism is nicely offset by the pragmatic cool of Texas Ranger Horatio Korman. A man made entirely out of glacial ice. Balancing these two is a supporting cast of well rounded and interesting individuals although the mad scientist was, maybe, a little cartoony.

The action scenes are both enormous fun and delightfully understated. They never feel heroic only futile, dirty and dangerous and you are never allowed to forget that they all have consequences.

The story is of course key and it's simplicity of purpose belies the complexity that is teased out over the course of it's 400 pages. The world Priest has created in the earlier tales is alive and impacting on her newer ones. The narrative rolls along and gathers momentum in most delightfully unexpected and appreciated ways .

I have been besotted by this book for the last few days and I've just emerged from it to discover that London is on fire with rioters looting all they can get. I'm too spaced to really focus and I have a warm fuzzy feeling that is probably not altogether appropriate given the news but that was a hell of a good book.

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