In 2009, Cherie Priest's Boneshaker introduced readers to her Clockwork Century alternate history series, set in a United States where the Union was never reunited in 1865. It was a fun, durable world, full of zombies, weird drugs, giant machines, and zeppelin pilots. Now it comes to a satisfying end with Fiddlehead.
Some spoilers ahead.
Fiddlehead follows a former slave, Gideon Bardsley, inventor and patron of former President Abraham Lincoln and his pet project, a calculating machine nicknamed 'Fiddlehead', which has spat out something that worries just about everyone. Fiddlehead predicts that if the United States can't bring the war to a close, the growing zombie plague is going to run out of control and everyone - Union and Confederate - will lose. Lurking in the shadows is also another a plot that'll hasten the end of the United States by destroying the Fiddlehead and its creator.
The various elements that make up Fiddlehead have been building over the course of the series: we saw the zombies first appear as an immediate threat in Boneshaker, and on the loose in Dreadnought. Other books have featured the impact of Sap, a drug derived from the gas, and their ghastly consequences. Fiddlehead has some big arcs to finish out, all the while maintaining a standalone story. It mostly works, and Priest brings the story to a satisfying conclusion that sees some familiar characters return from the earlier works in the series.
Fiddlehead runs through the war-torn American south, following Bardsley as he struggles to alert the American public to the dangers that threaten both North and South, while Maria Boyd is on the track of a plot that threatens to undermine even that overwhelming threat. The book thunders to a close with an action-packed conclusion that features gunfights, airship chases, strike teams and some good old espionage. It's a hard book to put down.
It's difficult to close out a lengthy series to everyone's satisfaction, and while Priest manages, Fiddlehead does suffer from a divided focus. It's preoccupied with closing out the major storylines, all while trying to tell its own story. At times, it's hobbled by several chapters of a single gun fight that seem to simply tread water while the rest of the book catches up. Then we speed past what the book promises to do: show how it all ends. The American Civil War comes to an end with a short conclusion, and I missed seeing a compelling story of just how one ends a war. It's a good entry in the series, but it's a conclusion that never quite lives up to the Boneshaker.
What's most interesting about Fiddlehead is its contemporary relevance, and this helps keep the book afloat. In a year that has seen horrific chemical weapons attacks in Syria, as well as new doomsday scenarios from global climate change, Priest's latest is a surprisingly timely novel that has some good lessons to take to heart.
Here, a divided North America faces major problems that surpass each side's individual interests; and all the while there are those who aim to generate a profit from a never-ending war. While I don't think that climate change and specifically Syria figured into the influences here, its intriguing to see their shadows in this kind of fictional environment. The entire Clockwork Century series has looked to technology out of time, showing us a world that really doesn't operate that much differently from today.
I'm also sad to see this series go. Priest has had a good thing going with her series, a durable, fleshed out world populated by a huge range of interesting characters, locations and technologies, and an overarching storyline that really worked. Boneshaker was a wonderfully entertaining novel, and while none of the books in the series quite captured the same enthusiasm as that first book, I looked forward to each one as they came out.
There's certainly room for additional adventures - Priest hasn't ruled out additional works set in the real world - and I hope that she'll eventually return to play in this fantastic, open world. In the meantime, Fiddlehead is a fitting conclusion to an entertaining series, one that lives up to its predecessors and providing us a solid ending.