Cherie Priest’s renowned Clockwork Century Series continues in the fifth installment Fiddlehead. At the close of the civil war, Priest thrusts the reader into political plans. With a heavy emphasis on reunification, Priest shifts the story to DC. Though Priest has proven in the past to be a masterful storyteller, Fiddlehead doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Young ex-slave Gideon Bardsley is a brilliant inventor, but the job is less glamorous than one might think, especially since the assassination attempts started. Worse yet, they’re trying to destroy his greatest achievement: a calculating engine called Fiddlehead, which provides undeniable proof of something awful enough to destroy the world. Both man and machine are at risk from forces conspiring to keep the Civil War going and the money flowing.
Bardsley has no choice but to ask his patron, former president Abraham Lincoln, for help. Lincoln retired from leading the country after an attempt on his life, but is quite interested in Bardsley’s immense data-processing capacities, confident that if people have the facts, they’ll see reason and urge the government to end the war. Lincoln must keep Bardsley safe until he can finish his research, so he calls on his old private security staff to protect Gideon and his data.
Maria “Belle” Boyd was a retired Confederate spy, until she got a life-changing job offer from the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Pinkerton respects her work, despite reservations about her lingering Southern loyalties. But it’s precisely those loyalties that let her go into Confederate territory to figure out who might be targeting Bardsley. Maria is a good detective, but with spies from both camps gunning for her, can even the notorious Belle Boyd hold the greedy warhawks at bay?
Had Fiddlehead been my first endeavor into Priest’s writing, I may not have ventured to read more of her books. For some reason, all of the things that make Priest shine in her other novels disappear from this story. This started with a lack of world development and setting descriptions. While Priest made the city of Seattle come alive, DC and the surrounding areas didn’t even get a passing note. This was incredibly frustrating as there were very few visual cues to make the story come alive.
I think most of Priest’s struggles come when she introduces us to historical figures. Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant feel droll and naive. That is hard for me to say since as a politco, I find these two past presidents to be quite fascinating. Priest’s take on them was just lacking any sort of character or conviction. I would have much preferred her to write fictional elements to their personalities than make them seem like irrelevant pillars of the past. The character issues don’t end there. Gone are the quirky humorous men and women of the past books. In their place are characters who all blend into one another. Some of these are simply poor naming- Maria and Mary become a bit muddled no matter how great of a writer you are. The only interesting character was a villain by the name of Katharine Haymes. The owner of Haymes & Sons, a weapon manufacturing plant, Katharine orders an unspeakable horror with a certain amount of class and intellect. However, in she lacks any sort of menacing features and feels incredibly rushed as a character, lacking true development.
The real downside to Fiddlehead is the lack of a strong plot. The concept is there but there are only two are so events with nothing to tie them together. Much of the storyline is spent talking in rooms plotting what to do. This is a stark contrast to the action packed predecessors. Unfortunately, I think this is in part why Priest is so unsuccessful in writing Fiddlehead. This vague plot mixed with a lot of references to the one series installment which is hard to obtain make reading occasionally boring and frustrating.
Priest has consistently produced good work in and it was on this potentially last installment of her popular series where she stumbled. As a fan of her work, I hope she reconsiders and writes one more book in the Clockwork Century universe simply because Fiddlehead left me so disappointed. Looking back, there was nothing I truly liked about this book. Ultimately it lacked all of the soul and heart Priest put into her previous books. I sincerely hope Priest gets her groove back.