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Fiddlehead
by Cherie Priest
Tor, $14.99, 368pp
Published: November 2013

Perhaps because of the runaway success of the Clockwork Century series, Cherie Priest is eager to avoid being pigeonholed. She's written a lot more than just these books, after all, but everything she writes in gothic black seems to get overlooked behind everything she writes in steampunk brown. As if to highlight how Tor Books aims to help blur those boundaries, 'Fiddlehead' is printed with regular black text instead of the cool sepia tones of the earlier books in the series and I found that I missed that little touch.

Now, the reason that the Clockwork Century books are so successful is because she started them incredibly well. I enjoyed 'Boneshaker' immensely and so did everyone else, which is why it won a Locus Award and was nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula. If I enjoyed 'Boneshaker', I absolutely adored 'Dreadnought', which is still my favourite steampunk novel thus far and one to which I've already returned a few times.

However, I found 'Ganymede' and 'The Inexplicables' a little more inconsistent; they certainly contained moments of power, the sort of glorious passages full of wild imagination for which Priest is rightly well regarded, but they weren't sustained and I wondered partway through both if she was feeling confined by a world that she'd created and the contract she had to produce more stories set within it.

'Fiddlehead' sits uncomfortably in between those two extremes. In attempting to wrap up both the series and the decades long American Civil War that provides its background, I feel that she managed to regain the wheel to drive this book herself rather than the book driving her, as the last couple seemed to do. The story benefits from that immensely, especially in the action-packed second half. However, it doesn't feel as substantial as those first two books, perhaps partly because the traditional device of the title has little part to play in proceedings beyond setting them up. While the Boneshaker machine had a similarly small part to play in the original book, it did at least do so directly and, of course, Dreadnought literally powered its first sequel.

Here, Fiddlehead is only a beginning, the mechanism by which Priest can stop a war. Like Deep Thought in 'The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy', it's a vast computing engine, programmed with every piece of available data possible and given a single simple question on which to ponder, that question here asking who will win the war. Unlike Deep Thought, however, Fiddlehead gives a relatively useful answer, which is that neither side will emerge victorious. Instead, the shambling corpses will win the day, those creatures created both by the gas that seeps out of the ground in the walled city of Seattle and by the drug that is manufactured from it. In doing so, they will take over the continent and destroy both sides, the Confederacy and the Union.

Once Fiddlehead produces that answer, its job is done and it finds itself relegated to imaginary footnotes. Its inventor, however, Gideon Bardsley, remains important to proceedings, as does his patron, Abraham Lincoln, now a former president who has retired to his wheelchair after an unsuccessful assassination attempt at the Ford Theatre. Ulysses Grant is in the White House, considering a third term in office, even though he's been used and abused by all and sundry during the first two. The events that Fiddlehead sets in motion allow him to finally find his purpose for being there.

Lincoln and especially Grant are interesting characters for this alternate history and the fictional Bardsley plays well with his real counterparts, including Mary Todd, Lincoln's diminutive wife. However they're stuck in Washington, which leaves a set of other fictional characters to quest through both nations in arms, indulging in the more adventurous side of things.

Chief among them is Maria 'Belle' Boyd, a retired spy for the Confederacy, now working out of Chicago for the Pinkerton Detective Agency and tasked by the head of that company to help Lincoln save the country and perhaps the world. She's an endearing soul, with her unique background providing neat depth to what could otherwise have easily become a stereotypical, if still enjoyable, kick-ass female steampunk character.

I'm not familiar with Boyd, as her prior adventures were told in the odd man out novel in the Clockwork Century series, 'Clementine', published not by Tor like the rest but in a special edition by Subterranean Press. I do need to pick it up soon, especially as it's not as expensive as many books from that publisher, which specialises in collector's editions that are often out of my price range.

It's Boyd who gets to roam the country, accompanied by Henry Epperson, US Marshal, to fight the good fight against the war itself and what would today be termed the military industrial complex which doesn't want it to stop because it's making far too much money out of the conflict. These villains are personified here by one character, the suitably sociopathic Katharine Haymes, who shouldn't have been its only face but at least is an agreeably dastardly one.

'Fiddlehead' often feels like a conscious attempt to wrap up the whole series. Priest herself hints at that in the introduction, but she isn't quite able to make it happen. She does introduce characters from earlier books in cameo roles, as is her habit to keep recognisable links between the novels she sets in this shared world. I've always admired the way Priest refused to tell the same story twice, preferring to expand her steampunk world with new stories in new cities with new leads and new motivations. She's a little more obvious with her cameos here, though, as if she was working from a list of favourites to whom she wanted to say goodbye.

I enjoyed 'Fiddlehead' more than the last couple of books in the Clockwork Century series, because the story felt like it woke Priest up at night to write it down, rather than being driven by demands from fans or publishers for another entry in the series. However, it also felt like there was more to say that wasn't said, more substance to explore that wasn't explored, more that could have been done to wrap everything up once and for all.

I left with the feeling that perhaps it should have been two books. The alternate history is intriguing, but it's thoughtful stuff full of the sort of high level strategy that only unfolds behind locked doors and finds itself unable to leave the capital. Lincoln would have made for a strong lead in a talky volume punctuated by episodes of physical danger and Grant's gradual discovery of purpose. Yet the pulp adventures that follow 'Belle' Boyd on her quest are all action that need space to find true grounding.

In two different volumes, these two different stories could have each found the room they needed to breathe, but when combined, the action and the talk only fight each other and that doesn't help the book. It means that 'Fiddlehead' is another flawed but interesting novel that serves to keep this series alive even when its author perhaps wanted to kill it off. She'll need a better ending than this to accomplish that.

Maybe she's already done so, as she recently returned to the series once more with a novella called 'Jacaranda' for Subterranean Press. When I can afford it, I'll happily take a look at that one too. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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