7 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Clementine by Cherie Priest

ClementineTitle: Clementine

Author: Cherie Priest

Genre: Historical, Speculative Fiction

Publisher: Subterranean Press
Publication Date: August 2010
Paperback: 201 Pages

Maria Isabella Boyd’s success as a Confederate spy has made her too famous for further espionage work, and now her employment options are slim. Exiled, widowed, and on the brink of poverty…she reluctantly goes to work for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in Chicago.

Adding insult to injury, her first big assignment is commissioned by the Union Army. In short, a federally sponsored transport dirigible is being violently pursued across the Rockies and Uncle Sam isn’t pleased. The Clementine is carrying a top secret load of military essentials—essentials which must be delivered to Louisville, Kentucky, without delay.

Intelligence suggests that the unrelenting pursuer is a runaway slave who’s been wanted by authorities on both sides of the Mason-Dixon for fifteen years. In that time, Captain Croggon Beauregard Hainey has felonied his way back and forth across the continent, leaving a trail of broken banks, stolen war machines, and illegally distributed weaponry from sea to shining sea.

And now it’s Maria’s job to go get him.

He’s dangerous quarry and she’s a dangerous woman, but when forces conspire against them both, they take a chance and form an alliance. She joins his crew, and he uses her connections. She follows his orders. He takes her advice.

And somebody, somewhere, is going to rue the day he crossed either one of them.

Stand alone or series: Can be read as a standalone, but technically volume 1.1 in the Clockwork Century series (follows Boneshaker)

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher

Format (e- or p-): Print Book

Why did I read this book: Many moons ago, Ana and I reviewed the first book in the Clockwork Century series, Boneshaker. I enjoyed the book, despite some larger questions about worldbuilding and plausibility, and have always meant to continue with the series… except that it never happened for various reasons. When I received a copy of Clementine (and the forthcoming Jacaranda!) in the mail, however, I was reminded of the pseudo-steampunk world and decided to jump back in and give it another try.


For twenty-five years, Miss Maria Isabella Boyd has made her living as a spy – more than enough time to gain a notorious reputation as a dangerous woman recognized by name and person. Married twice, widowed once, employed as an actress and any other number of cover stories during her time working for the Confederate army, Maria Boyd currently finds herself in a precarious situation. With her notoriety preceding her person, and the stinging withdrawal of her Confederate pension, Maria has very limited employment options – and, with nowhere else to turn, she accepts a job as the newest agent for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Her very first case, commencing on arrival at the Agency, is a doozy, too; Maria is hired by the Union to ensure that a dirigible called Clementine safely reaches her destination and delivers her cargo (“humanitarian supplies” according to Pinkerton’s intel). Problem is, the Clementine is being pursued by another notorious figure: wanted fugitive, runaway slave, and exceptional thief, Captain Croggon Beauregard Hainey. Unbeknownst to Miss Boyd, all Captain Hainey wants is to recover his ship – which he had stolen fair and square as the Free Crow, but now flies for Uncle Sam under the name Clementine.

As Maria and Hainey close in on their quarry, they learn that not is all that it seems – Clementine‘s cargo, her mission, and her destination are part of a much larger scheme. And together, the Southern spy and the swindling airship captain team up to achieve their own not-so-separate goals.

The second chronological book in the Clockwork Century series, Clementine is a fact-paced, high stakes, airship-embarking, gatling gun thrill ride of a story. Although technically this volume immediately follows Boneshaker, and there are some familiar faces and repercussions from that book seen here (there’s talk of bottling and selling that tricky gas zombifying the inhabitants of Seattle, for example), Clementine can be read as a standalone story. And, in fact, it probably should be read as a standalone story because it’s impressive and well-rounded enough to serve as a powerful introduction to Cherie Priest’s alternate 1880s Civil War torn Clockwork Century world. The combination of high stakes action and intriguing world setup is what’s so appealing about this series, and in particular, Clementine – you’ve got two parallel narratives, alternating between Maria Isabella Boyd as she pursues the Clementine and gathers information about the crew of thieves who are trying to intercept the ship, and Captain Croggon Beauregard Hainey as he and his crew doggedly chase down the ship they believe to be theirs. Inevitably, the two storylines merge, and both protagonists learn the truth of Clementine‘s mission, why she was stolen in the first place, and the people who are so eager to ensure that she delivers her cargo on time. Along the way, airborne fight scenes, a huge automatic loading and firing gun, and daring lies and intrigue ensue. Naturally. Who doesn’t like all of that?

Beyond the flash-bang-whizz of the action, the basic setup of the Clockwork Century world is intriguing in its own right. This is an alternate 1880s America in which the Civil War rages on, steam-powered technology has arisen and prevailed as the dominant method of invention and innovation, and the undead can even be revived. While the premise is fantastic, like Boneshaker, unfortunately Clementine doesn’t actually dive into the specifics of this world very deeply – beyond knowing that President Lincoln survived his assassination attempt and the Civil War is going strong for 20 or so years, there isn’t too much time spent on the background of this alternate historical world. That said, there is plenty of room to grow and to build upon this solid premise in future books in the series.

Truly, the most memorable aspect of Priest’s worldbuilding in Clementine concerns her characters. Both Maria Boyd and Captain Hainey are memorable protagonists, suited well as both foils and reluctant allies. An older, divorced and widowed woman who has been cut off by her former employer due to her infamy, there’s little not to like about the competent, straight-shooting Miss Maria Isabella Boyd. She might be desperate for work, but she also has a calculating mind and quickly figures out how to handle her new employment situation – and quickly takes to her very first assignment. Meanwhile, Clementine‘s other protagonist Captain Hainey is a runaway slave who was formerly imprisoned under false accusations involving a southern white woman, and after spending 20 years in prison he has taken to a life of robbing banks, stealing airships, and pirating goods for profit. Hainey is loyal to his crew and to his ship, and as an authoritative Captain figure does a fantastic job as a protagonist.

The only thing that truly bothered me about Clementine was the missed opportunity and lack of discussion of race and gender in this particular world, especially given these particular protagonists. In this 1880s world, choices are limited for women, especially in Maria’s line of work. There’s some discussion of this as Maria is certainly a female character with agency, who more or less navigates the waters between objectification (Maria is a woman notorious for her killer body, but not-so-pretty face, and is objectified based on said body) and empowerment (she uses her body to her advantage in order to aid her exceptionally quick-thinking and gutsy decisions to get the job done). Of course, it’s not perfect. I’m not entirely comfortable with the fact that hijinks with Maria tend to result in her undergarments flying away or getting ripped. Nor am I comfortable with the lack of discussion of race in this story, particularly in the interactions between Captain Hainey and Maria – Hainey, who was imprisoned because of accusations involving a white woman, certainly has a reaction to Maria when he learns that the southern spy is on his trail. That said, the reaction is momentary and superficial, without any other discussion later. Similarly, Maria never reacts to Hainey or discusses race, which felt jarring and inauthentic, considering the setup of the world and the ongoing war between North and South.

Despite these issues, I found Clementine an engaging, action-packed, fun read, and a great introduction to the Clockwork Century world. If you’re looking for a pseudo-steampunk-y, alternate history speculative fiction title, Clementine is for you. Recommended, and I think I’ll try to get back into Priest’s series very soon.

Notable Quotes/Parts:

Pinkerton’s face fashioned an expression halfway between a grin and a sneer. He said, “I hope you didn’t think I was asking you to sit still and look pretty.”

She was poised to leave the office but she hesitated, one hand resting on the back of the chair. She turned to the door, then changed her mind. She said, “Mr. Pinkerton, over the last twenty-five years I’ve risked my life to pass information across battlefields. I’ve broken things, stolen things, and been to prison more times than I’ve been married. I’ve shot an dkilled six men, and only three of those events could lawfully be called self-defense. I’ve been asked to do a great number of unsavory, dangerous, morally indefensible things in my time, and I’ve done them all without complaint because I do what needs to be done, whenever it needs to be done. But there’s one thing I’ve never been asked to do, and it’s just as well because I’d be guaranteed to fail.”

He asked, “And what’s that?”

Without blinking she said, “I’ve never been asked to sit still and look pretty.”

And before he could form a response, she swished out of the office, turning sideways to send her skirts through the doorway.

Rating: 7 – Very Good

Reading Next: Greenglass House by Kate Milford

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  • Nathan (@reviewbarn)
    September 9, 2014 at 9:26 am

    I found the series intriguing from the start but saw some rough edges. For what it is worth I thought the second and third full length books were fantastic, with this novella showing a lot of promise.

    But this was a always a series that flirted with discussing some of the issues of gender and race but never actually focused on them. Both good and bad in some respects; the characters don’t walk around with twentieth century questions but some of them do push against the societal role they are being assigned.

  • Bookgazing
    September 11, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    Love Hainey – hope there’s more of him in the rest of the series. And just found out Belle Boyd was a real lady and there’s a book about her (and other female spies of the Civil War): https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18679391-liar-temptress-soldier-spy

  • Zahra
    September 12, 2014 at 6:04 pm

    Ehhh……I’m on the fence with this one. I generally stay away from steampunk and alternative history because I find it always has a thick layer of racism when you scratch away the surface–often in simply pretended that the brutal racism and imperialism of the 19th c didn’t exist, so it won’t get in the way of the reader’s fun–and this one seems like it continues that tradition.

    I appreciate the review!

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