Book Club Questions: Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

Mercy Lynch is working at a war hospital in Richmond, Virginia, when she learns that her husband has died in a POW camp and her estranged father is gravely injured and wishes to see her. With no good reason to stay in Virginia, Mercy sets out to see her father in Seattle.

But crossing the country is no small task; it’s a harrowing adventure through war-torn border states by dirigible, rail, and the Mississippi River. And once Mercy finally arrives in St. Louis, the only Tacoma-bound train is pulled by a terrifying Union-operated steam engine called the Dreadnought. Lacking options and running out of money, Mercy buys a ticket and climbs aboard.

What ought to be a quiet trip turns deadly when the train is beset by bushwhackers, then vigorously attacked by a band of Rebel soldiers. The train is moving away from battle lines into the vast, unincorporated west, so Mercy can’t imagine why it’s meeting such resistance. Perhaps it has something to do with the mysterious cargo in the second and last train cars?

Mercy is just a frustrated nurse who wants to see her father before he dies. But she’ll have to survive both Union intrigue and Confederate opposition if she wants to make it off the Dreadnought alive.

Both of us had a nice time reading this book, which was a fun adventure tale set in an alternate history version of the United States. I had read Boneshaker (the previous book in the series) years before with mixed feelings, but since Cherie Priest is a widely acclaimed steampunk author, I was hoping to give her another try. My friend had not read anything by her before, so this also gave us a chance to discuss our therefore differing impressions from reading a supposedly standalone book within a loosely connected series. If you are looking for an light steampunk romp across the Western frontier without too many hard-hitting themes, then this is the book for you.

Discussion questions below the cut!

Do you feel the book is effective on its own, or that it needs to be considered part of a larger series?

Do you think that Mercy Lynch arrived in Seattle different than when she left Virginia? Why or why not?

What would you consider the core questions or ideas of this book? Where are they highlighted and/or resolved?

In relation to the previous question, what do you feel the Dreadnought and the zombies represent?

How do you feel about the way the author handled race in this book? How about women?

How did you like the way steampunk was featured in this story? Do you wish there was more of it? Did you feel it was obtrusive? Do you think it was tied into the story’s themes sufficiently?

Let’s talk about genre! Is this that fabled category all its own of “steampunk”? If not, is it fantasy? Or Western? Or something else?

How would you describe steampunk? What elements help you identify it? What concepts would you say are at its ideological core?

If you use these questions to shape an online discussion post of your own, please link back and give credit.

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