Maria's Reviews > Clementine

Clementine by Cherie Priest
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Sep 11, 11

bookshelves: steampunk
Read from September 05 to 11, 2011

I bought Clementine because I had just finished reading Boneshaker, which I thought was a clever and original story that reinvented American history and offered a plausible alternative timeline in which the American Civil War never ended and drags on through internecine fighting and skirmishes. While I think much of Clementine captures elements of this originality, it was a touch disappointing, primarily because there wasn’t enough narrative to develop either of the main characters or their place in the textured history Priest has created for her Clockwork Century novels. I find that this novel can more appropriately be described as a novella, and it almost felt like a short story whose expansion was forced, with somewhat unsatisfying results. Although Priest’s narrative in this novel is adequate, the characters never become truly interesting and, as a result, I had trouble developing emotional attachment to them, as well as the desire to see them succeed. This book definitely adds to the Clockwork Century series, and is worth owning, but it simply never transcends the problem with the flat character development.

The reader first meets Captain Croggon Beauregard Hainey in Boneshaker: He’s a former slave who ‘liberated’ an airship from Confederate forces eight years before the start of the story and headed West with a crew of former slaves to make their way through piracy and smuggling of the highly addictive Yellow Sap. His airship, which he has rechristened the Free Crow, is stolen during Boneshaker by Felton Brink, who is using it to transport an important component for a superweapon being constructed in the North. Hainey takes this theft very personally—he stole the Free Crow fair and square, after all, and it’s a matter of personal honor. He’s not going to let Brink get away with renaming his ship Clementine and depriving him of his means of making a living.

Then the narrative shifts to Maria Isabella Boyd who, at nearly forty, has had too much success as a Confederate spy. Rather than retire her gracefully, however, the Confederate government sends her the dreaded “your services are no longer needed” letter, and leaves her to make her way as best as she can without a military pension, which is inexplicably withdrawn. Boyd is left with limited options for employment until she is hired by the Chicago-based Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Her boss knows she was a Confederate spy, but since his firm is no longer being given much work by the Union, he feels that the benefit of her particular skillset outweighs the potential for conflict of interest. For her first mission she is tasked with making sure that the airship Clementine makes it to Louisville, Kentucky. She isn’t told what’s on the ship, only that the ship has to make it to its destination by any means necessary, and if she can also capture Hainey, then she can turn him over to the Confederate authorities for extra consideration. Pinkerton isn’t necessarily aligned politically and, so long as she does the job she’s paid to do, he doesn’t really care what her political views are.

The story then alternates between Hainey and Boyd: Hainey, as he comes East from Seattle, and Boyd as she rushes West from Chicago. The two meet in the middle of a firefight in Kansas City and quickly discover they have common goals. Hainey doesn’t know where Brink is taking the Clementine, but he knows that its cargo will be used in the manufactory of a superweapon the Union plans to use to win the war. Boyd knows where the ship is heading, but was unaware of the weapon that will be used to destroy major Confederate cities in an effort to force the surrender of the South. The two decide to join forces to retrieve Hainey’s ship and prevent the Union from being successful.

As other reviewers have already pointed out, the story feels hurried and poorly developed, with a plot that feels thin and barely plausible. Cities are alluded to, but there is barely any mention of how the protracted civil war has restricted the westward expansion of the United States or how population growth has been changed. I assume that the American population would continue to grow, even given the ongoing civil war, and I can’t figure out where the populations are or why they would go in those directions. This created a disconnect with the characters: As a reader, I don’t understand why Boyd continues to be loyal to the South and its political goals, or who is buying the merchandise that Hainey is stealing and/or transporting. The story is action-filled and fast-paced, but it seems to be serving goals I can’t understand or support as a reader. In short, the story gives me few reasons to sympathize with or like these characters, and I just don’t care if they are successful.

Despite my complaints about the narrative, I enjoy Priest’s writing style, and I was entertained by the story. It’s all action-adventure, with nontraditional leading characters in an older heroine and black leading man. I appreciate that Priest resisted the urge to further muddle her novel with a romance, and the relationship between Hainey and Boyd remains properly focused on getting to Louisville so that they can go their separate ways. This is not to say that they don’t earn each other’s respect, because they do, but this story isn’t long enough for anything more sophisticated, like friendship, to develop. Because this story adds so little to the alternate history Priest has created, I would recommend that readers who are new to the Clockwork Century should focus on reading Boneshaker and Dreadnought first, and save this book for supplemental reading.
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Reading Progress

09/05/2011 page 35
17.0% "I'm glad we understand one another. And you'll understand most of my men just fine. But I've got a handful who think I'm a fool,though they don't dare say it to my face. They think you're here to stab me in the back, or sabotage the agency, or wreak some weird havoc of your own."
09/07/2011 page 81
40.0% ""Can you think and steal a ship at the same time?" the first mate asked. "I could knit a sweater and steal a ship at the same time, and don't you josh me about it. Come on. Let's grab the coach, get the Rattler ready, and see what Lamar's been up to. We've got a Valkyrie to ride.""
09/07/2011 page 151
75.0% "Just like that, the sky was a sucking thing, blowing ice up her skirt and against her skin, and beneath her the ground was amazingly far away. She held her breath because she could not breathe, and she swung her legs because she lacked the strength to do anything else. Wisps of cloud billowed past her, screamed between her legs, and lashed at her arms, but she did not fall."

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