When Hollywood makes a movie of Ganymede — and they have to — I hope they subtitle it “The Battle of Barataria Bay.” That sequence comes near the end of Cherie Priest’s latest CLOCKWORK CENTURY novel, and is fasten-your-seatbelt, grip-the-arms-of-your-chair exciting.
Priest’s books always feature strong women, and in Ganymede, the main character is Josephine Early. Josephine lives in New Orleans, running an upscale bordello. Nearly twenty years into the American civil war, the Confederacy is having trouble holding New Orleans and has called on its political ally the Republic of Texas to help occupy the city. Early’s hometown is filled with brown-shirted Lone Star soldiers and administrators, and she has grown to hate them. As a free woman of color, she is all too conscious of how easily she can lose that freedom just by traveling to the wrong state. For these reasons and others, she is spying for the Union, and her brother is leading a band of resistance fighters in the bayou. They have found the Ganymede, a vessel they believe will change the course of the war. It’s a ship that travels beneath the water and requires a special kind of pilot. Josephine knows one, and sends a telegram to Andan Cly.
Andan Cly is an airship pirate and smuggler who spends most of his time in the underground city of Seattle, in the Washington Territories. Cly is motivated for the first time to adopt a slightly less illegal lifestyle, because of his growing relationship with Briar Wilkes. This run to New Orleans will probably be his final act as an air pirate.
The Ganymede run is incredibly dangerous, but brown-shirts aren’t the only danger on the streets of New Orleans, as Joesphine finds out when she follows two Texian officers. They are mobbed by the Walking Dead on the waterfront. Josephine is nearly attacked herself, but assisted by one of New Orleans’s famous characters, Madame Marie Laveau. The Dead Who Walk, or “zombis” as Leveau names them, are increasing in number daily. No one in New Orleans knows their origin.
Ganymede parsed into three stories for me. The first is Josephine’s part of the Ganymede adventure. The second is the Ganymede run itself. The third section is the discovery of the zombis, and some theorizing about their origin. I thought this third part of the book was the choppiest, but the addition of Madame Laveau brought a convincing element of weirdness, and there is a section of the book, when Josephine is heading back to her house and trying to beat curfew, where Priest brilliantly evokes a strange, eldritch mood that culminates in a powerful and emotionally moving visual.
Ganymede itself is a wonderful, intriguing contraption, and one of my favorite bits in the book is the exquisite blind on the road to the bayou boys’ hideout, and the hideout itself, cleverly camouflaged. Priest creates the sense of southern speech without resorting to dialect, just by paying attention to the rhythm of the language. The writing here is some of Priest’s best:
Three were in uniform, three were not; but anyone who’d seen a Texian official knew the posture anywhere. Josephine recognized it as easily as the smell of baking bread.
Houjin, Cly’s young apprentice, is a mechanical genius, stuffed to the brim with curiosity.
His passion for all things mechanical would draw him to the lake even if they told him it’d cost a dollar and he’d have to take a beating when he arrived.
The hands that clasped Josephine’s were as thin as twigs, despite the woman’s otherwise stout appearance. Gas lamplight twinkled on the silver of her rings, and on the red, blue and green of the gems or colored glass found therein. The queen smelled like sandalwood and sage, feathers and dust. And in her eyes, sunken with age, smoldered a deep, grim light.
Her prose is so good that when Priest used anachronisms I found them jarring. Andan comments to himself that something “blew Josephine’s mind.” In the 1880s, really? This is as bad as if the characters suddenly shouted “Twenty-three skidoo” or something.
I have to forgive and forget this, though, because the epic air and sea battle for the Bay of Barataria blew mymind.
I think Priest is writing the best steampunk around right now. Her world teems with inventiveness, emotional tension and vivid action sequences. I recommend Ganymede.
CLASSIFICATION: The Clockwork Century series is set in an alternate history America circa 1880, flavored with elements of steampunk, horror, intrigue, and Western pulp.
FORMAT/INFO: Ganymede is 352 pages long divided over 17 numbered chapters. Also includes a Map and an Author’s Note discussing the actual history used in the book. Narration is in the third-person, alternating between the prostitute Josephine Early and the air pirate captain Andan Cly. Ganymede is self-contained, but is connected to the previous volumes (Boneshaker, Dreadnought) in the Clockwork Century series. A couple of matters are left unresolved in Ganymede, but hopefully they will be explored in the next Clockwork Century novel, Inexplicable. September 27, 2011 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of Ganymede via Tor. The cover art is once again provided by Jon Foster.
ANALYSIS: Compared to Boneshaker and the novella Clementine, Dreadnought was a disappointment, failing to deliver the same level of fun, thrills and entertainment found in its predecessors. Fortunately, Cherie Priest returns to form in her latest Clockwork Century novel, Ganymede. For the most part at least.
One of the biggest issues I had with Dreadnought was how all of the exciting parts were sandwiched in between seemingly endless pages of boredom. Ganymede still suffers from a few boring lulls, but overall the book is a more entertaining affair thanks to faster pacing, a smaller page count, tighter plotting and a narrative that once again switches between two different POVs. It also helps that the tone of Ganymede is not as dark or serious as it was in Dreadnought, while the author has reined in her exploration of such themes as racism, gender roles and war, even though they are still present.
As for the novel’s characters, Josephine Early is another strong and interesting female protagonist in the vein of Briar Wilkes and Mercy Lynch. However, apart from her profession and the color of her skin, there is very little to differentiate Josephine from Briar and Mercy. Besides sharing the same traits and a similar narrative voice, Josephine’s relationship with her younger brother is strongly reminiscent of Briar’s relationship with her son Zeke and the relationship that Mercy establishes with her father. That’s why it’s nice there is a second POV in the book. Especially when that second POV is Captain Andan Cly. Cly is a personal favorite of the Clockwork Century’s supporting cast, so it was very rewarding to see the air pirate in a starring role. Plus, he provides a nice counterpoint to the familiarity of Josephine’s narrative.
Plot-wise, Ganymede is pretty straightforward. There are subplots involving “zombis/Dead Who Walk” and the pirate bay of Barataria, some romance, and even a little bit of voodoo, but mostly Ganymede is exactly as described in the synopsis. Because the story is so straightforward there are hardly any surprises along the way, but it’s a fun ride nonetheless. It’s also important to note that even though Ganymede is self-contained like its predecessors, the novel works better as a complement/sequel to Dreadnought than a standalone tale since it develops matters introduced in the previous book, while setting the stage for further developments in the next Clockwork Century adventure.
Of the writing in Ganymede, Cherie Priest delivers another impressive performance, led once again by highly accessible prose. Other highlights include the vibrant depiction of a Texas-occupied New Orleans with an escalating rotter problem, and the interesting history & historical figures and places — Horace Lawson Hunley, Madame Marie Laveau, Barataria Bay — woven into the novel. I also loved the way references are made to the other releases in the Clockwork Century series. Sometimes it’s simply the mention of a name — Croggon Hainey, Dr. Minnericht, Mr. Pinkerton’s Secret Service, Captain MacGruder — but in most cases, familiar faces and plot developments make an actual appearance in Ganymede. These include the bartender Lucy O’Gunning, Miss Angeline, Jeremiah Swakhammer and his daughter Mercy Lynch, Briar Wilkes and her son Zeke, Ranger Horatio Korman, and so on.
CONCLUSION: From an entertainment standpoint, Ganymede certainly has more to offer than Dreadnought, but at the same time, the novel falls a couple notches short of the thrilling heights attained by Boneshaker and Clementine. For the most part, though, Ganymede is another rewarding entry in the Clockwork Century series. A series I very much look forward to continuing in next year’s Inexplicable.