Tor, New York, 2013.
The fifth and last planned (so far) novel in Priest’s Clockwork Century series, Fiddlehead, like Dreadnought and Ganymede it removes the action from the poisoned city of Seattle, but much more successfully than either of them. Fiddlehead takes place in the centres of Union and Confederate power, and focuses around a calculating engine developed by former slave Gideon Bardsley – which has predicted that both Union and Confederacy will lose the war to the walking dead – and the plots of moneyed interests to keep the war going for the sake of profit in the face of ex-President Lincoln’s and current-President Grant’s attempts to bring the war to a close.
An aside: the scenes with Lincoln and Grant felt rather comic-book-esque – I mean these characters, larger-than-life, are canonised rather than problematised – which took away from the book for me.
The main characters are Grant, Bardsley, and retired-spy-turned-Pinkerton-agent Maria Boyd. Bardsley’s prickly arrogance-of-genius is interesting, as is his quite real desperation when Evil Money moves to discredit him by framing him for money. Grant is not, alas, very interesting – but Maria Boyd! I sometimes feel, particularly with the Clockwork Century series, that Priest is at her best when writing somewhat unconventional women, or women who make the best of situations in which they never expected to find themselves, and Boyd is a perfect example. Whether investigating leads or racing against time to stop a terrible weapon, she remains a fascinating character – although I may well be biased in her regard.
Although at points flawed and problematic, Fiddlehead is fast-paced, entertaining, engaging, and rather a lot of fun. The best series books make you want to go back and reread their predecessors, and Fiddlehead did exactly that.