I snagged a copy of Dreadnought by Cherie Priest from the Tor booth at ALA Midwinter. (Many publishers give their books away the last day of the show.) Boneshaker, the first book in Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series was one of those books that after reading you sort of shove at people with the admonition “you just have to read this.” Boneshaker was one of the books that makes steampunk so cool.

Back to Dreadnought. I picked up the print copy for my airplane book. I loved Boneshaker (and Ms. Priest’s paranormal/urban fantasy Bloodshot as well) so I knew Dreadnought would be awesome. I just couldn’t figure out why I didn’t already have it.

Embarrassing answer: I did already have it, in my B&N Nook app on my iPad. Which didn’t solve the airplane problem. I still needed a print book for the dreadful “please turn off all electronic devices” moments. Airline magazines are generally dull as ditchwater, and I can’t sleep on airplanes unless I’m beyond comatose.

So I realized I’ve had Dreadnought for over a year, but it got caught in the “so many books, so little time” vortex. The airplane gave me a chance to return to a writer I enjoyed and her carefully crafted steampunk universe.

Thank you Tor, and thank you ALA trip! I loved Dreadnought. It reminded me of everything I enjoyed about the Boneshaker universe, but it didn’t rely on it too much. Which was a great thing, because I remembered the big story but not the small details, since I read Boneshaker when it came out in 2009. And now I want to read it again.

In the Clockwork Century, the Klondike Gold Rush did happen, But Russian investors paid inventor Leviticus Blue of Seattle to construct a steam-powered mining machine. And history went down a very different path then the one we know. Because Levi Blue’s “Boneshaker” didn’t just destroy a whole lot of downtown Seattle, it also unearthed a terrible gas that turned anyone who breathed it into a zombie. And the stuff was addictive in the bargain, so folks ended up hooked on it before they turned into the “living dead”.

But it was effectively knocking Seattle out of the U.S. economic and political picture on the eve of the U.S. Civil War that was felt back East. That War between the States didn’t wrap up in 1865, it kept going, and going. Five years, ten years, twenty years later, it’s still going on, to the point where grievances aren’t fresh, they’re inherited from fathers and brothers. And that’s where Dreadnought begins. In a Confederate hospital, with a nurse named Mercy Lynch.

Mercy receives two pieces of news, one right on top of another. She gets a visit from the famous nurse Clara Barton, who does found the Red Cross in seemingly every universe. Miss Barton was accompanied by a Union soldier who was given permission to cross the Confederate lines after he had been released from Andersonville Prison. That infamous place also existed. Mercy Lynch and her husband were from Border states. When her husband’s Kentucky home went Union, he enlisted with the Union Army. This Union soldier has come to tell her that he witnessed her husband’s death at Andersonville.

When Mercy was left alone, she became a nurse, and a damn good one. But Mercy was from Virginia. And Virginia was a Confederate State.

After getting the news that she was a widow, Mercy received a telegram from Seattle. Her father was dying and wanted to see her. Mercy didn’t know whether to be astonished or angry. Her father had abandoned her and her mother when she was a child, and had disappeared out West. Mercy hadn’t known he was still alive. But he wanted to see her. Seattle was a long way from Virginia. She would need to quit her position as a nurse and travel thousands of miles by airship and train. The war was between her and the coast.

Mercy felt torn by duty, but also free of duty. And she was tired of being pulled in every direction every minute. After a lot of soul searching, she set out for Seattle.

The journey is an incredible adventure. Dreadnought is a road novel, but the road is like no road story you’ve ever read. It’s not just that everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, it’s also that the kind of things that go wrong are nothing Mercy, or the reader, can possibly imagine.

Most people back East don’t know what has happened in Seattle, so Mercy doesn’t know what she is headed towards. Her world is the War. In Seattle, the War is far away. Their problem is the blight gas. And yes, those two problems do collide, multiple times, on Mercy’s trip, but not in the way you might think.

And wow, what a ride! You just know that when Mercy reaches her destination, her adventure has just begun.

Escape Rating A+: I forgot I was on a plane. I got so sucked into the story, I lost track of everything around me. Mercy Lynch is an absolutely unforgettable character, and the reader is pulled along with her every step and mile of the trip.

Dreadnought made me want to go back and read Boneshaker again, and read the next book in the series, Ganymede immediately, because I want to find out what happens next. (There’s also a loosely linked novel, Clementine sorta/kinda before Ganymede.)  I’m trying to restrain myself, and it’s just about driving me crazy. Dreadnought had me on the edge of my seat. If you like steampunk, read the Clockwork Century and find out what all the fuss is about. You’ll be glad you did.


The Black Stiletto

What if you found out your mother used to be a superhero? That’s the premise behind Raymond Benson’s The Black Stiletto, and it makes for one amazing story.

When I say superhero, don’t think of the family from Pixar’s The Incredibles. It wasn’t that kind of book, and this isn’t that kind of family. Benson’s Black Stiletto is way more like a female version of the original Bob Kane Batman.

What do I mean by that? Unlike Superman, the X-Men or the Fantastic Four, Batman is an unmutated, grown on Earth, human being. Highly trained and highly skilled, and possibly obsessive-compulsive to the max, but completely human. In the original Bob Kane comics of the late 1930’s, Batman began by avenging the deaths of his parents.

The Black Stiletto also has revenge on her mind.

But the story begins with a middle-aged man named Martin Talbot reading his mother’s diaries from the late 1950’s. His mother Judy is in a nursing home in suburban Chicago with Alzheimer’s; she doesn’t recognize him, or anyone else, anymore. So her lawyer gives him a floorplan of her house which shows a secret room in the basement, and a key.

Behind that hidden door, Martin discovers a treasure-trove and a puzzle. His mother’s diaries are there, from 1958 onwards. All of the original comic books featuring the Black Stiletto, which are worth a fortune on the collectible market. Two Black Stiletto costumes. But the diaries are astounding. The diaries of his mother’s life in New York City as a young woman, when she lived over a gym and learned to fight.

Martin remembers his mother always kept in shape. There’s still a punching bag hanging in that basement. He remembers her practicing in every place they lived. He knows she lived in New York, but not with him. He was born in Los Angeles. But he never knew his father, the mysterious Richard Talbot. And reading the diaries, he realizes that he never knew his mother. But for the diaries, because of Alzheimer’s he never would.

But was she really the Black Stiletto? And was the Stiletto a hero, or a just a vigilante? Read along with Martin to find out.

Escape Rating B: What an astonishing book! Superheroes are always larger than life. To suddenly discover that one of your parents was one, how much would that rock your world? When Martin discovers that his mother was nothing like he thought she was, it makes him question the whole of his life.

The diary that Martin is reading only covers the very earliest period of Judy’s time as the Black Stiletto. Those early years do come back to haunt the present, but it’s those early years that I really want to know about. Martin has lots more diaries to read, and I’m dying to know what’s in them. Read The Black Stiletto and you will be too.

Cast in Ruin

Cast in Ruin is the 7th book in Michelle Sagara’s Chronicles of Elantra. Saying that I enjoyed this series doesn’t even come close. I became so enthralled with Kaylin and her crew that I put the whole Elantra series on my “Best of 2011” list. Now I get to tell you why.

It’s a little hard to categorize this series. It reads like an urban fantasy. Complete with snark. There’s a very high snark quotient, and it’s definitely of the “snicker, snicker, snort” persuasion. It’s also very dry humor, and very situational. What made me chuckle was based on the personalities, rather than because something was funny per se. And it made things damn hard to explain to my husband, who wanted to know what my chortles were all about.

Like so much of urban fantasy, a lot of the humor is gallows humor. The city of Elantra has as much crime as any big city, magical or otherwise. In addition, there’s the more unusual and magical sort of crime. Investigating the seamier side of human (and other-human) nature seems to require a taste for gallows humor in whoever (or whatever) does that investigating. Whether that investigator has skin, fangs, fur, feathers, or scales.

But if the Chronicles of Elantra are urban fantasy, complete with detectives, they are not just urban fantasy. The city of Elantra does not appear to be on Earth, or in any history that includes our Earth, at least not so far. Elantra, in this reviewer’s mind, is a high-fantasy world. The human characters that we identify with at first, Kaylin and later Severn, are part of a race that is not native to Elantra. The native races are the immortals, the Dragons and the Barrani. Then there are the mortal native races, the Leontines and the Aerians.  Plus another mortal race who somehow came later to Elantra, the Tha’alani.

And into this polyglot steps Kaylin Nera. Kaylin is a child of the fiefs. In other words, she grew up outside the edge of the city, outside of the laws of the Dragon Emperor, and was poorer than poor. But for no reason that anyone has ever been able to determine, magic interfered with her life. Runes of ancient script became written on her skin just before her 13th birthday. Because of those runes, other girls died in an attempt to awaken some power that Kaylin did not and still does not want.

But Kaylin has magic whether she wants it or not. And because she does, she has become involved with people that she never would have imagined when she was begging on the streets in the fief of Nightshade.

By the time of Cast in Ruin, Kaylin is in her 20s. She has come a long way from the 13 year old waif who first came to the Halls of Law and attempted to assassinate the Hawklord. She should have been executed for her crime. Instead, the Hawks adopted her as a mascot. And when she was old enough, she became one of them. A ground Hawk, an investigator of crimes against the Dragon Emperor’s laws.

Seven identical women have been found dead in Tiamaris’ fief. But in the fiefs, the Dragon Emperor’s laws don’t apply, even if Tiamaris was a member of the Emperor’s court until just a few short days ago. But Tiamaris has also allowed the new race of giants who had come through the mysterious “ways” to settle in his fief. And the giants have angered the “Shadows” at the fief borders, the “Shadows” that threatens the stability of all the magic that underpins Elantra. And those seven identical dead women, well, number eight shows up with a message, then dies. But when number nine comes to call, let’s just say that everyone’s assumptions about everything are about to come unglued. Along with a few dragons.

Escape Rating A+: This was fantastic, stupendous, wonderful. I wish I could take Kaylin out for drinks because I love her brand of snark. But she’s also one of the most complicated characters I’ve met in a long time. She grows and changes and knows she’s growing up. She has so much stuff in her head and she doesn’t believe in herself but she keeps trying anyway. And she has so much to forgive herself for, but not as much as she thinks she does. Give yourself a really, really gigantic treat. Take the time to start with Cast in Moonlight (in Hunter’s Moon) the novella that starts it all, then dive straight into to Cast in Shadow and don’t look back.

Kissing my TBR Pile Goodbye

Bookish has a Reading Challenge that is tailor-made for me. Fulfillment may be an issue.

I’m talking about the TBR Pile Challenge. The challenge is to get stuff out of my TBR Pile. Since I keep moving my TBR Pile from house to house, this seemed like a no-brainer to me, at least in the sense of signing up for it. How I’ll actually do on it is anybody’s guess.

I am signing up at the 21-30 book level, which is “A Sweet Kiss”. As in, I’m going to kiss 21+ books in my TBR Pile goodbye. Hopefully more.

Wish we luck on this one. I’m going to need it!