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Literature: Clockwork Century

The Clockwork Century is an Alternate History created by Cherie Priest, in which the The American Civil War has raged for nearly two decades thanks to Steam Punk and Diesel Punk technology. Oh, and there are also zombies.

Cherie Priest created the series as a literary Magnum Opus for Steam Punk fans. So far she has written six novels; Boneshaker, Dreadnought, Clementine, Ganymede, The Inexplicables and Fiddlehead, and a novelette Tanglefoot which can be read on-line.

Boneshaker is set in 1880 Seattle, which has been walled off after a Deadly Gas was released from underground by Dr. Leviticus Blue, inventor of the eponymous Drill Tank, who then vanished under highly-suspicious circumstances. His son Ezekiel Wilkes enters the poisoned city in search of evidence that will clear the family name, and his mother Briar pursues to get him back — both find themselves in peril from Seattle's undead inhabitants, and a sinister figure calling himself Dr. Minnericht who may well be Zeke's Disappeared Dad.

In Dreadnought 'Mercy' Lynch is a nurse in a war hospital in Richmond. After receiving a telegram that her own Disappeared Dad is dying and wants to see her, she sets forth on a perilous journey across the war-torn states, eventually ending up on the titular Union armored train with a mysterious cargo that the Confederates are desperate to intercept.

Clementine focuses on Maria Isabella Boyd, a former Confederate spy whose fame has made her unsuitable for spy work. She finally finds employment with the pro-Union Pinkerton detective agency and is given an assignment from the Union government. A Union airship, the Clementine, is transporting needed military supplies and is being pursued by Croggon Beauregard Hainey, a freed slave and known pirate. Maria's job is to stop him.

Ganymede centers on Andan Cly, an airship pirate who is contacted his ex-lover prostitute Josephine Early and asked to come to New Orleans. She tells him about the submersible war machine Ganymede, which is hidden at the bottom of Lake Ponchartrain. If Cly can sneak it past Southern forces, it could end the war. Unfortunately, nobody knows how to operate it and anyone who has ever tried has wound up dead.

The Inexplicables returns us to Seattle and could be regarded as somewhat of a direct sequel to Boneshaker. It follows the adventures of Zeke's friend, Rector Sherman. Believing that Zeke is dead and that he is responsible for his death, Rector is driven by guilt to enter the blighted Seattle. Except this time, there are more than just rotters in the walled-off city; the eponymous Inexplicables are lumbering beasts that now roam the place, and nobody knows what they actually are.

Fiddlehead brings us to the final book of the Clockwork Century series, in which a great computing engine designed by young ex-slave Gideon Bardsley brings the rotter problem to full light, and how if the war between the north and the south doesn't stop at once, there may not be a country left. However, some are trying to stop his information from coming to light, and Pinkerton agent Maria “Belle” Boyd is brought in to find out who, and how to stop them.

Not to be confused with the Mary Sue-tiful Star Trek novel Dreadnought!


The Clockwork Century series contains examples of:

  • Absurdly Spacious Sewer: A Tunnel Network adapted from those dug by the Boneshaker and the real-life Seattle Catacombs, is used to travel about the city without the inhabitants encountering rotters or needing a gas mask.
  • Action Girl: Every female protagonist, as well several minor female characters, can use a firearm with remarkable proficiency.
  • Anti-Air: Anti-aircraft guns were invented within a few months of dirigibles being used for military purposes; the hydrogen-filled airships were easy prey.
  • Artificial Limbs: Lucy O'Gunning has a mechanical arm.
  • BFG: The Rattler in Clementine, a hand-held gatling gun.
  • Captain Obvious: When Swakhammer first meets Briar.
    Swakhammer : You...are a woman!
    Briar: Very good.
  • Awesome Personnel Carrier: Roller-crawlers
  • The City Narrows: Subverted; Mercy is forced to stay overnight in a 'rough neighbourhood', but realises the next morning that it's regarded that way simply because of all the Negros living there. Played straight with certain parts of New Orleans.
  • Clear Their Name: In Boneshaker Zeke enters Seattle to find evidence that will prove the innocence of his father and grandfather.
  • Cool Ship: Ganymede, the third book in the Clockwork Century, involves an attempt to salvage the titular submersible.
  • Cool Train: Dreadnought
  • Covers Always Lie: The zeppelin in the goggles is not the Boneshaker. The mech is not the Dreadnought.
  • Deadly Gas: The Blight.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Briar Wilkes and her son Zeke; it seems to run in the family.
  • Death Ray: In Clementine, the Union is developing a 'solar cannon' large enough to destroy a city.
  • Diesel Punk: The Republic of Texas has discovered oil at Spindletop some fifty years sooner than in real life, and helps the South with the new technology allowed by the more efficient fuel. In Dreadnought the Confederate soldiers are quite proud of their 'walker' which runs on diesel as opposed to the steam-driven Union mecha. Coal-diesel hybrid engines are also used by paddlesteamers and trains.
  • Drill Tank: Dr Blue's "Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine" or "Boneshaker", designed to drill through the Alaskan ice to mine gold for the Russian government. Instead Blue uses it to rob Seattle's underground bank vaults of over three million dollars worth of gold. Unfortunately we never actually see the device in action.
    It would be the greatest mining vehicle ever constructed: fifty feet long and fully mechanized, powered by compressed steam. It would boast three primary drilling and cutting heads, positioned at the front of the craft; and a system of spiral shoveling devices mounted along the back and sides would scoop the bored-through ice, rocks, or earth back out of the drilling path. Carefully weighted and meticulously reinforced, this machine could drill in an almost perfect vertical or horizontal path, depending on the whims of the man in the driver’s seat. Its precision would be unprecedented, and its power would set the standard for all such devices to come.
  • Enemy Mine: Mercy and Ranger Korman — both Southern sympathisers — team up with a Union captain to make sure the Dreadnought gets to its destination. The captain later insists they rescue Confederate soldiers from the rotters despite the opposition of his men.
    • In Clementine, ex-Confederate spy turned Pinkerton agent Belle Boyd and runaway slave turned sky pirate Croggon Beauregard Hainey.
  • Fighting for a Homeland: In Dreadnought, the Union plans to use gold and land grants to recruit Chinese Laborers as soldiers. The West wants to get rid of them, the East need soldiers, and the Chinese want US citizenship. The South on the other hand is none too happy.
  • Forever War: The Civil War has long since become a massive grudge match. It's certainly not about slavery any more, as with the exception of a few states the South has abolished the practice for entirely practical reasons — they need soldiers at the front line, not guarding against a slave uprising. And free Negroes make a more willing workforce to support the war effort.
  • Gas Mask Mooks: Everyone is Seattle has a mask, so this happens by default. Jeremiah Swakhammer is the best example of the trope.
    The man with the tinny voice was speaking through a helmet that gave his face the shape of a horse's head crossed with a squid. The mask ended in an amplifier down front, and it split into two round filters that aimed off to either side of his nose.
    • Also Minnericht himself.
    Dr. Minnericht’s mask was as elaborate as Jeremiah Swakhammer’s; but it made him look less like a mechanical animal than a clockwork corpse, with a steel skull knitted together from tiny pipes and valves. The mask covered everything from the crown of his head to his collarbones. Its faceplate featured a flat pair of goggles that were tinted a deep shade of blue, but illuminated from within so it appeared that his pupils were alight.
  • Gatling Good: You didn't think they'd miss out on this trope, did you? Just look at the cover of Clementine.
  • Goggles Do Something Unusual: In this world, there are goggles that allow wearers to see a normally invisible zombifying gas.
  • Goggles Do Nothing: At one point in Dreadnought, an airship captain dons a pair of goggles that are said to be largely for show. This is likely an affectionate dig at the Steam Punk movement's overuse of goggles.
  • High-Altitude Battle: The theft of an airship (itself recently stolen from the Confederate military) leads to a midair battle between two Sky Pirate gangs in Boneshaker.
  • Historical-Domain Character:
    • Dreadnought opens with Mercy being informed by Clara Barton and Dorence Atawater of her husband's death in Andersonville Prison Camp.
    • Marie Laveau, a New Orleans Voodoo practitioner, appears in Ganymede.
    • Famous Confederate spy 'Belle' Boyd is the heroine of Clementine.
  • Honor Before Reason: Maynard Wilkes deserted his post to release prisoners in the Seattle Jail who were helpless against the advancing Blight, and was killed by the gas. Most assume he was bribed to set them free, but the criminal community regard Maynard as a Folk Hero.
  • Humongous Mecha: Walkers
  • Just Think of the Potential: Malverne Purdue says this while they've being besieged by rotters, having intended to use the Blight gas as a weapon of war. Mercy is not impressed.
  • Lensman Arms Race: Between the Union and Confederates.
  • Mad Scientist: Minnericht (Boneshaker). Malverne Purdue (Dreadnought). Archibald Smeeks (Tanglefoot and Clementine) is a less malevolent version.
  • Mama Bear: The driving force of Boneshaker.
  • Ninja Zombie Pirate Robot: Zombie Sky Pirate Steam Punk Mecha
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Horatio Korman has no liking for Mexicans or the Union, but when his job forces him to co-operate with such people he does so without horsing around.
  • Not Quite Dead: Averted; Minnericht is not Leviticus Blue, as Briar Wilkes has known all along.
  • Not Using the Z Word: Rotters (Justified Trope due to time period)
    • Ganymede, set in New Orleans and including appearances by Marie Laveau, does refer to them as zombis.
  • Our Zombies Are Different
  • Precision F-Strike: Appropriate for the time; everyone tends to watch their language when women are about, but in moments of stress both sexes let the word "shit" spill out.
  • The Gunslinger: Ranger Korman draws Guns Akimbo and shoots two men, just as one was about to pull the trigger of his rifle.
    • He manages to kill one, with his good hand, while the other is wounded, but still out of commission (he dissappointedly says he was aiming higher)
  • Racing The Train: The Dreadnought finds itself being chased on a parallel track by the lightly-armed but much faster Shenandoah which (in The Western tradition) tries to head them off at the pass (where the rail lines converge to cross the Rockies).
  • The Reveal: A decade prior to the story in Boneshaker, protagonist Briar killed her husband Leviticus in cold blood on discovering he was planning to run away with the loot and leave her, indirectly driving much of the plot as a result.
  • Runaway Train: The Dreadnought is racing at full speed to keep ahead of the much-faster Confederate train Shenandoah, which is on a parallel line. When the latter pulls ahead everyone realises that they could blow up the tracks ahead and derail the train, killing everyone, so they need to stop the train. Unfortunately the Dreadnought is so heavy and powerful that even with every brake applied in the locomotive and every carriage there's still a question as to whether it will stop in time.
  • Sky Pirate: Captain Cly and Captain Hainey, among others.
  • Sonic Stunner: Dr. Minnericht’s Doozy Dazer can stun rotters for about three minutes.
  • Spanner in the Works: Minnericht's imprisonment of Briar provokes the other residents of Seattle to rise up against him. This was probably going to happen anyway, but harming the daughter of their folk hero was the final straw.
  • Spot the Imposter: When Minnericht tries the Luke, I Am Your Father routine, Zeke asks for his mother's middle name and the color of her eyes.
  • Spider Tank: Anti-aircraft crawlers in Dreadnought.
  • Survival Horror: While the novels are nominally Steam Punk, the everpresence of the Blight-infectee zombies in conjunction with oppressive surroundings forces protagonists to tiptoe around and constantly count ammo, as is seen most clearly in Boneshaker. As a result, Priest gets to let her penchant for horror bleed through almost constantly.
  • Technology Porn: Averted. Although the titular mecha are briefly described (see Drill Tank above), they have little to do with the stories which are character based.
  • Train Job: The James Gang attacks the Dreadnought, though it's more of a "recon by fire" as the train is too well armed to seize.
  • Zeppelins from Another World: Airships are used mainly for transporting freight and passengers. Military models exist, but they are of limited use due to the need to armour them, increasing their weight and thus reducing their lifting capacity and range.
  • Zombie Gait: Happens at the early stage of conversion, but rotters get faster as they get more hungry.
  • Zombie Infectee: Played straight; Lucy the bartender lost her arm to a rotter bite, it was amputated to prevent her from turning.
    • However, it seems to be played straight as of Dreadnought. Though the implication is that infection-through-biting has a lower chance of happening than breathing the gas.


The City & the CityNebula AwardAmbergris
Julian ComstockHugo AwardBlackout
Stealth BastardHumble BundleWil Wheaton
Casca: The Eternal MercenaryAlternate History LiteratureCoDominium
Bitter SeedsDiesel PunkSteam Punk
The CliqueLiterature of the 2000sCloud Atlas

alternative title(s): Clockwork Century
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