The Clockwork Century is a series of interconnected novels set in the 1870s in an alternative United States of America , in which the Civil War is still raging on, with the Confederacy slowly losing but not yet defeated, while Texas is an independent Republic. In this world technology is more advanced and (as in all the best steam-punk novels), there are airships whose crew and captains play a key role in several of the novels. There are also zombies – a genre I usually avoid like the plague so to speak – but in these novels I can put up with them as they are not the main storyline.
It isn’t the steampunk technology, or even the alternative history that makes this such an enjoyable series to read, but the ingenious storylines and the engaging array of characters. Many of the lead characters are women, while others are black, Chinese and Native American. The novels are not direct sequels, but are set in the same world, and characters from one novel often appear in another.
The first novel is Boneshaker (2009), set in Seattle – not the hip city afloat on coffee that we know from Frasier – but a small, barely known city in the wilds of Washington Territories which suffered a devasting catastrophe when a mechanical underground digging machine – the “Boneshaker” of the title – created by Leviticus Blue undermined the foundations of the city, releasing a yellow posion gas known as ” the blight”. This not only kills but also creates zombies (or “rotters” as the inhabitants call them) who prowl the deserted streets looking for victims. The gas can also be turned into a drug called “sap”.
The whole city has been isolated by a huge wall to keep the gas from spreading ; the few inhabitants still left survive by living underground with supplies brought in by airship, while fresh air is supplied by pumps run by the Chinese. We meet an array of characters including a young man Zeke Wilkes (Blue’s son), who enters the city in search of the truth about his father; his mother Briar Wikes, who goes in pursuit of him and knows the secret of the gas outbreak; Captain Andan Cly, an air pirate; and Princess Angelina, a Native American. .The book ends with a dramatic battle for control of the city, and revelations about the “Boneshaker”.
The second novel is Clementine (2010) which introduces as to Belle Boyd, a real historical character who was a spy for the Confederacy. In this alternative world she is in exile in the North, widowed and broke, and goes to work for the Pinkerton detective agency in Chicago. She is sent on a mission on behalf of the Union army to protect one of the airships – the Clementine of the title – which is being pursued by air pirate and escaped slave Croggon Hainey (one of the joys of the novels is the names Cherie gives her characters). But as is often the way of such things Belle’s mission takes an unexpected direction…
Dreadnought (2010) is the third novel. We meet Mercy Lynch, a nurse working in a hospital in the South where, among the wounded, she finds an increasing number affected by “sap”. Learning that her husband is dead, and that her father has been wounded in Seattle, she sets off an epic journey across the frontline of the war to see him. The “Dreadnought” of the title is an armoured Union train on which she travels for part of her journey, and which has a mysterious cargo whose true nature she is desperate to learn. On the way Mercy and her fellow passengers are faced with a life and death struggle when they run into a posse of “rotters”.
The fourth novel is Ganymede (2011), which is set in New Orleans. Josephine Early, a black woman, runs a brothe, l but is also an agent for the North. Her task is to somehow move an experimental submarine, Ganymede, (which really existed, by the way) hidden in Lake Ponchartrain out of its lair and out to sea. To do she calls upon a former lover, Andan Cly (whom we first met in Seattle), to pilot the submarine. There are of course people desperate to find the submarine and stop it getting into the hands of the North…
The Inexplicables (2012) is the fifth novel which takes us back to the gas-blighted city of Seattle, which comes under attack from a gang which wants to seize control of the supply of “sap”. At the same time the inhabitants of the Underground are disturbed by the appearance of a mysterious creature on the streets.
The final novel in the series is Fiddlehead (2013), which begins in Danville, capital of the South before taking us to Washington DC, the capital of the North. Here the ex-slave and brilliant engineer Gideon Bardsley has built an advanced calculating machine – nicknamed “Fiddlehead – financed by the former President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is in a wheelchair after surviving an assasination attempt. Fiddlehead predicts that the greatest threat to the country is not the war, but the “rotters”. Belle Boyd is sent to protect Lincoln and Bardsley and is caught up in desperate race against time against an enemy who will stop at nothing to keep the war going.