Why I Read It: Cherie Priest is always a “must buy” for me, though I don’t always read her work right away. Case in point, Ganymede came out last fall, and I pre-ordered it. Since its arrival, it’s been sitting here, waiting for me to get off my rear-end and read it. And since I’ve pre-ordered the next installment of the Clockwork Century (The Inexplicables), I decided I should probably go ahead and get Ganymede under my belt before the next installment arrives in November. That’s a good plan, right?
The premise: ganked from Amazon: The air pirate Andan Cly is going straight. Well, straighter. Although he’s happy to run alcohol guns wherever the money’s good, he doesn’t think the world needs more sap, or its increasingly ugly side-effects. But becoming legit is easier said than done, and Cly’s first legal gig—a supply run for the Seattle Underground—will be paid for by sap money.
New Orleans is not Cly’s first pick for a shopping run. He loved the Big Easy once, back when he also loved a beautiful mixed-race prostitute named Josephine Early—but that was a decade ago, and he hasn’t looked back since. Jo’s still thinking about him, though, or so he learns when he gets a telegram about a peculiar piloting job. It’s a chance to complete two lucrative jobs at once, one he can’t refuse. He sends his old paramour a note and heads for New Orleans, with no idea of what he’s in for—or what she wants him to fly.
But he won’t be flying. Not exactly. Hidden at the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain lurks an astonishing war machine, an immense submersible called the Ganymede. This prototype could end the war, if only anyone had the faintest idea of how to operate it…. If only they could sneak it past the Southern forces at the mouth of the Mississippi River… If only it hadn’t killed most of the men who’d ever set foot inside it.
But it’s those “if onlys” that will decide whether Cly and his crew will end up in the history books, or at the bottom of the ocean.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yay. If you’re wanting to avoid spoilers, just skip to “My Rating” and you’ll be fine. Everyone else, onward!
Discussion: I still remember reading Boneshaker back in 2009. Prior to reading, I was an uber-fan, having read everything she’d published except Fathom (and come to think of it, I still haven’t read that one. Shame on me!), and while I wasn’t on the steampunk train, I figured if anyone could get me excited about it, it’d be Cherie Priest.
Well, compared to my experience with Priest’s other books, I wasn’t nearly excited enough when I finished. Sure, it was well-written with great world-building, but it just didn’t excite me. But Priest gets the loyalty card, so I picked up Subterranean’s Clementine when it was published. Read it, still feeling the lack of excitement. It wasn’t until Dreadnought came out that I really got on board Priest’s Clockwork Century series, and I don’t know if she’d finally settled into a groove, or if I did, or both. At any rate, Ganymede continues the traditional of strong steampunk that takes U.S. history and warps into something both recognizable and not. And it’s that element that makes this series work so well.
But I realized, after reading Ganymede, there’s another element that makes this series so awesome. And that is this: every heroine in this series is a unique, capable, and fascinating character who’ll do what it takes to get what she wants, who’ll stand up for what she believes in, and who knows how to survive.
In Boneshaker, we got Briar Wilkes, single mother of a teen boy who becomes a sheriff.
In Clementine, we get Belle Boyd, a Pinkerton agent that I would kill to see come back in a later book.
In Dreadnought, we get Mercy Lynch, a nurse who’s traveling cross-country to meet a father she’s never known but who might be dying, and faces down a hoard of zombies in the process.
In Ganymede, we get Josephine Early, a woman of mixed race who is the owner of what appears on the surface to be a brothel featuring free women color, but is so much more; in addition, she’s doing everything she can to help the Union win the war, a war that goes on far longer than it did in real life.
For starters, I have to say I love the names Priest comes up with. All the names feel recognizably American but sharply so. You don’t get these women confused with each other, even without knowing their personalities. If I wanted, I could probably sit down and talk about each and every single one of these women and what makes them uniquely awesome, but that would require not only a massive re-read, but a separate post. So let’s talk about Josephine and Ganymede.
She’s a woman of mixed race. She’s a Union Spy. She also is in her mid-to-late forties, and come on, how awesome is that? Her age alone is a rare thing to find in the genre fiction, but Josephine proves to be a headstrong and determined woman. She and her ladies have located a device that could change the tide of the war, and everyone wants it. Yet with the help of the locals as well as her pirate friends (and brother), they manage to move the Ganymede to a safe location, and all that’s left is to pilot it and prove to the Union that it works.
The Ganymede, just so you know, is a submarine.
Enter Andan Cly, airship pilot, former pirate, and Josephine’s former lover. Andan is trying to go straight, and he’s starting to build a life back in the devastation that is Seattle. One of the things I loved about Cly’s story (as well as Josephine’s, but we don’t get that connection until later), is how everything is connected in Priest’s world. In Cly’s sections, we get cameos of Briar Wilkes and Mercy Lynch. In Josephine’s, we meet the Texas Ranger that Mercy interacted with in Dreadnought. And the REALLY cool thing about all of this is that if you haven’t read those previous books, it doesn’t matter. Priest knows how to write a self-contained story that still connects to the bigger picture but doesn’t give undue importance to events that the reader may not be familiar with. If it’s need-to-know, then she supplies it like one would supply any other piece of backstory, rather than ignores it, like lesser writers might, assuming that her readers are caught up and knows what she’s talking about.
The story of Ganymede itself is rather simple. Andan accepts Josephine’s offer, flies down to New Orleans to see the Texians (Texas has become its own country, and I suspect Priest is using Texians like Americans to indicate country-status, rather than more familiar Texans, to keep people from assuming Texas is still a state in the U.S.) beating the hell out of Barataria, the pirate bay, searching for Ganymede for themselves. Once he hooks up with Josephine and figures out how to pilot the thing, they end up detouring to aid the pirates so that the Texians have less land in New Orleans to lay claim to. They deliver the sub into Union hands, and all is well. Pretty straight-forward.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Clockwork Century book without the zombies. And one thing I really admire here is how Priest has enabled the spread of infection to spread across the US rather than keeping it confined to Seattle. We’re not talking viral apocalypse here either, but it’s a really clever way of creating more, and unlike Boneshaker, where I felt my suspension of disbelief was being stretched a wee bit too far, I’m starting to accept the zombies as an integral part of the world-building, and I’m curious how all of this will be handled, because we’ve learned that while the source is the same (Seattle), there are multiple ways for someone to be infected.
I also appreciated that Priest didn’t use this story as a vehicle to reunite old lovers. Cly and Josephine have a solid banter together, the kind of banter between two people who know each other well, but both characters are set in their ways and their goals, and their futures won’t intersect. Priest has a great passage describing how the relationship originally fell apart on page 199:
Even now it blew his mind that Josephine had preferred this sunken swamp to the cooler, clearer Northwest. Then again, back when they’d first started fighting about who should live where, she’d said it blew her mind that anyone would want to live in the rain by an ocean that was never warm enough to swim in, and didn’t even have a beach.
Then they’d fought about the differences between a beach and a coastline, and fought furthermore about what on earth she’d wear to stay warm all year if she left — and what he’d wear to stay cool all the year if he stayed.
In reality, they weren’t arguments about the weather. They were always about other things. Other issues. Other matters of control, and autonomy, and money. It was the same fight again and again, regardless of the details, and it took them months to figure out that they were bickering over who was being asked to give up the most . . . and who would do so, for the sake of being together.
So she’d felt abandoned. So he’d felt rejected.
So neither one of them compromised, and both got what they wanted most. Or least. Sometimes it was hard to recall.
Maturity, folks. This was awesome too that they didn’t revisit their relationship, didn’t try to make another go at it. Cly was making his own life with Briar in Seattle, and Josephine had her ladies to look after as well as a war to win for the Union. It’s maturity, folks, not characters getting sentimental over what-might’ve-been or any such nonsense. They’d tried a relationship once, it didn’t work, they knew why, and there was no point in trying again. Smart people, and I appreciate smart people.
I did notice that towards the end, when the Cly and Josephine were in the same place/same setting, that we did get a very subtle brand of head-hopping. I’d start out firmly in Cly’s head, and next thing I know I’m certain I’m in Josephine’s head, and I’d blink and wonder how I got there without a chapter break. It’s so subtle though that I don’t mind. No neon signs point to it, and it doesn’t go back and forth so quickly that you get whiplash. Good stuff.
I also liked the revelation of Ruthie. Totally unexpected, but totally awesome, especially because it made so much sense in context of the world-building. Ruthie: yet another great female character, albeit a supporting one, and female in spirit if not wholly in body.
Lastly, I loved the interaction at the end between Texas Ranger Korman and Josephine. Both of them stubborn and patriotic, not trusting each other, but having a ball together all the same. Is it all right to ship these two? Please?
My Rating: 7 – Good Read
While I still think Dreadnought is my favorite installment of The Clockwork Century series, Ganymede was a worthy installment all on its own, and by now, the world-building is so complex and complete that I feel like I’m coming home in a weird way. We may not get the same characters in every installment (indeed, we always get in the head of someone completely new in each book), but the world is so well-realized that I have no trouble seeing this steampunk, alternate history of the United States, and I’m all excited now for The Inexplicables (which really sounds like the title of a superhero movie, no?). At any rate, Priest continues her streak of populating the Clockwork Century universe with strong, capable women who are determined to make their own future, which is a joy to read. The world-building continues to engage, and it’ll be fun to see what the next installment brings.
Cover Commentary: It appears, according to a conversation I had with the author on Facebook, that Tor did the opposite of whitewashing here: Josephine, according to the text, can pass for white, though if you look at the heroine on the cover, I’m not sure that description would apply (for the record, the author does love this cover, though she also notes that: “I spelled out specifically in the novel that she passes for white; it’s kind of an important plot point, because she owns property in 19th century NOLA.”). That being said, I really like the look of the Josephine on the cover: she looks like she’s the forty-something year old woman she’s supposed to be, and if she’s portrayed a little darker, so what? I had this image of her so firmly grounded in my head that I missed the fact she could pass as white, and frankly, it doesn’t really matter. The cover itself isn’t my favorite, I should note: we get a profile/back-of-head shot for Andan Cly (who, for the record, should be much taller in comparison to Josephine), which is weird, but as a whole composition, I do like the cover, and I love that they’ve kept the look of these books consistent. Also loving the font.