science fiction and fantasy book reviewsThe Inexplicables by Cherie Priest fantasy book reviewsThe Inexplicables by Cherie Priest

The Inexplicables is the fifth book in Cherie Priest’s CLOCKWORK CENTURY series. This one returns to its roots, the walled, Blight-ridden city of Seattle. It’s 1881, and the American Civil War is still going on. Eighteen years earlier, a powerful mining device tapped into a vein of gas deep into the earth, and the gas spilled out into Seattle, killing most people and turning them into “rotters” or zombies. The source of the outbreak (downtown Seattle) was walled off and abandoned, but some brave souls still go in there. Mostly, they go to syphon up the Blight gas and distill it into a deadly drug called sap.

Rector Sherman is a sap addict and an orphan who has just turned eighteen. He is being evicted from the Catholic orphanage on the outskirts of the walled city. That isn’t Rector’s only problem. He’s also haunted by the ghost of Zeke Wilkes, a boy he sent into the poisoned city. In his drug-addled state, Rector decides to brave the Blight and rotters and find Zeke’s body. To his surprise, Rector isn’t the only one trying to get into the city. There are others, bringing dynamite and guns.

I found the first forty pages of The Inexplicables slow going because I didn’t like Rector (or “Red” as a later character dubs him). I didn’t like Rector when we met him briefly in Boneshaker, and following him as a viewpoint character made me chafe until I realized what Priest was doing. Rector is unlikeable and untrustworthy, largely because of his addiction. Once the sap gets out of his system, we see glimmerings of intelligence and even honor. For example, when Rector discovers that Zeke isn’t dead, he wonders what that place in his brain was that haunted him. We might call that place a conscience. He begins to realize that he can have a good idea now and then. He becomes interesting because he has a chance to shake the deadly grip of the sap, but still craves it.

Once Rector is inside the city, Priest brings back a lot of favorites. Andan Cly, the airship captain, and Briar Wilkes, Zeke’s mom and the sheriff, both make appearances, but the book belongs to Angeline Sealth, daughter of Chief Sealth, a true Native American Princess. Yaozu, a criminal mastermind who also protects Seattle, plays a major role. He manufactures sap, and part of his motivation is to protect his business, but even Angeline, who hates him, acknowledges that he does some good:

“These other two–” she motioned at Zake and Houjin, who remained concertedly quiet – “know how I feel about Yaozu. Wouldn’t spit on him if he were on fire. He spent too many years propping up my murdering son-in-law down here. I can forgive it for my own peace of mind — but I won’t forget it.”

Rector didn’t believe for a moment that she’d forgiven anyone for anything.

“That being said –” she chose her words carefully, speaking more slowly than usual – “Yaozu is not an inventor, and he’s not some kind of scientist — but he understands how to run a city, or a business or people… I will be as gracious as I can muster, and tell you that I don’t think Yaozu is the worst thing that could have happened to Seattle.”

Seattle has become the focus of many eyes; not only drug dealers who want to control their source of sap, but both the Union and Confederacy, each of which wants to weaponize both the drug and the rotters. This book is really about the first skirmish, and the development of the underground Seattle as a society and a city. You may have to work with people you don’t trust or don’t like in order to protect your home.

Some of the CLOCKWORK CENTURY books are slam-bang action-adventure, like Ganymede or Clementine. Others, like Boneshaker, are slower and more atmospheric, and The Inexplicables falls into the second category. The outward suspense comes from the plans of the locals to drive out the interlopers, and inward suspense is drawn from Rector’s struggle toward redemption.

One thing Priest does extraordinarily well in this book is create a sense of the blighted, eerie atmosphere of the city.

…They noticed signs that gone unreadable, the paint blistered to illegibility and the colors bleached to an ugly gold. Running through all this wreckage were paths that were once graceful, veering prettily between patches of manicured lawns and gardens, and were now uniform in their unkempt ugliness – though they retained their expensive, precise shapes. Nothing could grow in the Blight gas, and therefore nothing became overgrown. It would only rot where once it had thrived.

The title refers to some creatures that have attacked humans and rotters in the city, and to say much more would be giving too much away, but it is the presence of the “inexplicables” as well as some other animals that alerts the locals to the breach in the wall and the discovery of the invaders.

The Inexplicables is a dark journey in a blighted city and an addict’s mind, and Priest carries off both of these. I don’t think the “inexplicable” itself added quite enough to the story, but it gave Angeline a bigger role so I appreciated it for that. This is a solid entry in the CLOCKWORK CENTURY series. It tells a complete story while laying the groundwork for bigger issues and moral questions that loom for our pioneer characters.

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  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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