Cherie Priest’s Ganymede (Tor, 2011), the latest entry in the Clockwork Century series, is a delicious cross-country steampunk adventure spanning from the bayous of Louisiana to an underground settlement in Seattle. Like other books in the series, it stands alone in a well constructed Civil War-era universe, grounded in what Priest refers to as ‘fun with Real History!’ While the events of Ganymede may not be true to history, the spirit of the book definitely is, and the mysterious craft at the centre of the book is based on a very real episode from Civil War history, the experimental submarine Hunley.
Ganymede opens with a scene in Josephine Early’s ‘boarding house’ for ladies of a certain reputation, as she struggles to find a pilot capable of bringing a somewhat unique craft out of occupied New Orleans and into the Gulf for a liaison with the Union. She resolves to contact an old flame to see if he’s up to the job and the book cuts to Seattle, where readers meet Andan Cly, who agrees to set off across the States on a shopping trip to pick up a few items for Seattle residents, with a side stop to take care of Early’s submerged problem. What happens next involves a delightful amount of explosions, colourful language, and the occasional zombie.
This sparkling fantasy has language that turns on a dime to pull readers in and keep them hooked; it’s hard to stop, once the plot gets rolling and you need to know what happens next. Despite the rapid pacing, there’s plenty of time for interesting side adventures and characters, including some real historical figures who flow well within the context of the story. Adding people from history can be dangerous in fiction, as it’s easy for those characters to stand out as stiff and unnatural, clearly shoehorned in for name recognition, but Priest manages it with grace; readers not familiar with the history of the region may not even notice, which is perhaps the best mark of success.
In a fiction environment where zombies are starting to seem deeply cliché and literary agents from coast to coast are screaming ‘stop with the zombies already!,’ it’s hard to imagine a fresh take on the walking dead, but Ganymede features just that. Fans of the series will already be familiar with the zombies of the Clockwork Century, but newbies won’t be left feeling confused and disoriented, and even people who may be heartily sick of zombies will hopefully find something to appreciate.
True to form with other books in the Clockwork Century series, Ganymede breaks out of some steampunk norms; set in the United States during an alternate history Civil War, it avoids Victoriana and very few pairs of goggles are to be seen, although it captures the flavour of the steampunk ethos. Priest demonstrates that the genre can and should be enlarged, and that there are ways to play with the imperial themes that inevitably creep into many works of a steampunkish bent.
She also pushes at race and gender boundaries in a way that is gracefully and seamlessly integrated into the book as a whole. Ganymede highlights the role of free people of colour in the actual Civil War as well as the world of the Clockwork Century, for example, and also touches on Chinese settlements along the West Coast with the chapters set in Seattle. The crew of Cly’s airship is of mixed race, and the book as a whole presents a model that is not uniformly white, corseted, and dripping in silk gowns. Though there are, never fear, several fabulous frocks that will make their appearance.
Women in Ganymede are central to the story; Josephine Early is a prodigious organiser in addition to running the Garden Court Boarding House for Ladies (and their gentleman visitors), Briar Wilkes in Seattle is one tough cookie (and readers who want more Briar can hit up Boneshaker, which was released to rave reviews in 2009), and many other women play a vital, and no-nonsense, role in this pages. For those who appreciate other entries in the genre with robust, varied, and resourceful women as key players, Ganymede should be a pleasureable read.
Ganymede also features a transgender character, and not in a way that feels forced and contrived; she’s foregrounded in the story for her other traits, and her history only comes up when it’s directly relevant to the narrative, rather than being trotted out to impress readers with progressiveness, a common flaw when it comes to integrating trans, queer, and gender-variant characters in fiction. Priest allows her characters to speak, and act, for themselves, rather than forcing them into stiff roles, and their distinctive voices come alive in the pages.
If you’re a fan of lush world-building that promises a dazzling array of possibilities, terrific characters, and a whopping good time, you’ll probably like Ganymede and the rest of the Clockwork Century, which is a stellar set of interconnected works with the promise of many more on the horizon. If you’re not a fan of those things, I believe the phone company hands out entertaining reading for free on an annual basis.