Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Trouble with Clementine

I gave you a shot, Cherie Priest – I really did. And you done squandered it.

On the surface, Clementine by Cherie Priest looks like it can't miss. During a steam-powered revisionist Civil War, a southern belle Confederate spy is sent on the trail of dangerous escaped slave turned sky pirate Croggon Hainey, his all-black crew and his stolen warship, the Free Crow. Along the way, she's forced to team up with the pirate crew to achieve a common goal and they make the strangest of bedfellows.

In one respect, Clementine is successful. It achieves basically what it sets out to do – a safe, predictable adventure, set during a steampunk Civil War, that features mad inventions and airship chases. That's all there.

On the other hand, Clementine is a disatrous misstep and my final nail in the Cherie Priest, Clockwork Century coffin.

The premise of Clementine is so rich; there's a veritable multitude of issues and baggage and opportunities to unpack there. The two protagonist factions – Boyd, the Confederate spy and the all-black pirate crew – should ostensibly have such a fascinating power dynamic, considering all the different axis on which they're unequal.

  • A: Croggon is a freed black slave and Boyd is a wealthy, educated southern belle. According to the social mores of the time, she should consider him stolen property.
  • B: Boyd is a woman during the Civil War, while Croggon and his entire crew are all male. They may be black, but there was no reason they'd respect women anymore than white men of the time.
  • C: They're criminals and she's a law enforcement officer. This puts them at odds and, really, puts Boyd in power, as she's the authority to send them back to prison or slavery.
  • D: There are three pirates and one woman. While a formidable customer in her own right, Boyd couldn't possibly hope to defeat three opponents, should things dissolve into blows.
It's a fascinating pairing, right, and one that seems very deliberately chosen to create a morass of tension and character drama.

Except it doesn't. Ever.

The moment they meet, barring some very initial hesitation, both parties work flawlessly together. They both very quickly assess what the more pressing threat is, cooperate fully to overcome that danger and continue to see the benefits of working together the entire book. It's kinda mind-blowing how not a big deal these two groups of people working together are.

The differences between the characters are practically non-existent. We're talking about Scalzi levels of protagonist cloning; they might as well all be the same goddamn character, talking to themselves in fucking circles. Considering the incredible pains Priest goes to separate her characters across every gender, societal, racial and economic line, it's almost hilarious how none of that is ever brought up once.

I wanna know what the fucking Wire would make of this premise.

What's almost more offensive than that is, of the four different dynamics mentioned above, the only one that ever sees any play in the plot, is Boyd's plight as a woman. I'm certainly, certainly not attempting to downplay women's subjugation during as backwards a period as the Civil War – certainly not. But surely we can all agree that if Boyd lives in constant fear of being disregarded or treated unequally, the plight of the fucking escaped slaves maybe deserve a little plot attention, right?

Clementine is very clearly written from the prospective of a modern white woman, only comfortable with the kinds of social issues she's encountered in her life. These are the sections of the book that work best, character-wise – when Boyd is attempting to convince the patriarchy around her that she's a valid, worthwhile and capable operator, regardless of her gender. 

The thing is, I wouldn't know the first thing about writing a story from the perspective of an escaped Civil War slave. Me either, Cherie Priest – I'm just as white and even more privileged than you. But then, I didn't set out to write an entire goddamn book about it.

Beyond that, the plot doesn't get started until halfway through the book, contains entirely too many insipid scenes of booking passage aboard, talking to station agents and traveling to and from Kansas City, Louisville and a number of other flavorless, interchangeable cities in the middle of the country. It's poorly structured, uninterestingly written and worst of all, it's cowardly.

There's nobody who can squander a premise quite like Cherie Priest.

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