The Inexplicables – Cherie Priest

The Inexplicables is the fourth book in the Clockwork Centrury series written by one of my favourite authors, Cherie Priest (is it fair for me to say that when I haven’t read her other series? I’m going to say yes, because it’s my blog). I pre-ordered the book aaages ago, and set it aside to read over Christmas as a treat, then I got sidetracked by books which had expiration dates. Oops.

The Clockwork Century is set in a steampunk world , where the US civil war still rages in 1880 ( a fictional extension of the war, I gather, but at the time of writing this cannot [be bothered to] look it up). Away from the war, and 18 years in the past, an experimental burrowing device has released noxious Blight gas from the earth under the city of Seattle: Gas which makes people sick, and dead…. and then undead; gas which has caused the city to be walled up to prevent its spread; and, finally, gas which has been made into a weapon, and turned into drugs for men to fight over. For more info, read Boneshaker, the first novel.

It is within the walled city of Seattle that most of the action in this novel takes place. Rector Sherman, orphaned by the blight as a babe,  has just turned 18 and has been given his marching papers by the nuns at the orphanage. He is a sap dealer, an addict, and a petty criminal. Having led Zeke Wilkes to his supposed doom in Boneshaker, Rector is haunted by visions of the younger boy and has vowed to enter the quarantined city and find whatever remains of the boy who was sort of his friend.

Once inside, Rector discovers Zeke isn’t as dead (or undead) as he thought. There is no time to celebrate, however as he is soon recruited into solving the mystery of why the rotters inside the city have been disappearing, and where to. That’s not the only curious occurrence to coincide with Rector’s entry to the city: there’s a huge creature lurking in the Blight, and it is attacking men – chasing Rector (the titular Inexplicable, for those playing along at home).

I’m kind of in love with the Clockwork Century series, and though it’s possible that Boneshaker wasn’t the first steampunk novel I read, it is certainly what I think of when I mention the genre. This installment certainly did not disappoint. At first I admit I was a little hesitant about the idea of a sap-using main character, but somehow Priest made Rector likable to me; self-serving, cowardly behaviour and all.

Thus far, each new novel in the Clockwork Century series has been written as the story of new character (or characters) and The Inexplicables is the first to return to Seattle (in depth) since Boneshaker. I found it really interesting to see characters I knew well from another perspective, and Priest handled it deftly, giving the reader something to think about without being too jarring. Rector’s opinion of Briar Wilkes, for example is vastly different from the way all the other characters appear to see her, due to a run-in they had in Boneshaker. I was also highly amused by Rector’s interactions with Huey, Seattle’s resident boy-genius.

Being the first book in the series to return to the original setting, it’s also the only one I would say should not be read ‘out of order’ from the others (to a small extent, Clementine wold also fall in this category) as events in previous books start to come together more than before. A reader would certainly be able to follow the book, but it is much more enjoyable when read after the other books.

Priest tells the story in a focused third-person point of view, and it rarely strays from what Rector is doing. As with the other books in the series, The Inexplicables delivers a healthy mix of description and action, making it an almost compulsive read. Something that’s consistently enamoured me of Priest’s writing is her treatment of exposition, which never feels like an info-dump (as far as I can remember). Though the series is full of rich detail and description, it never seems to get in the way of the character driven nature of the books – in fact, though the books are written from a third person perspective, it feels like the reader is discovering the world through their eyes. In this installation, a lighter touch was taken and though the workings of the city were explained to Rector because he was new, they weren’t lingered on. I think this was an excellent choice, because it provides enough information to flesh out the world for new readers (and remind existing readers of the situation) without bogging down the action, or boring existing readers by retreading old ground.

Without spoiling the book, the most detail I can give about one of my favourite parts is that it involves dynamite. I’m a bit of a sucker for explosions. I was also pretty impressed with how, when introducing something that could potentially be the first truly ‘supernatural’ element of the entire series, Priest keeps the true nature of the Inexplicable just undefined enough that the reader can decide for themselves what it is. I won’t tell you what I thought 😀

I’d better wind this up now, as I keep getting tangled in describing the series as a whole, instead of the individual book. I’m so sorry!

In conclusion: The Inexplicables is a fun, sophisticated read, as I’ve come to expect from the Clockwork Century books; Cherie Priest has a deft hand hand with steampunk, and doesn’t put all the focus on gadgets, which a lot of writers fall into the trap of doing; Rector Sherman is an engaging scoundrel of a character, who will grow on you like a fungus, and whose self-serving ways don’t extend quite as far as he pretends they do. Plus, if none of that moves you: zombies, explosions, monsters and gas-masks.

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