by Cherie Priest
Boneshaker caught my eye when it was reviewed in an issue of Publishers Weekly. A part of it was its steampunk setting, which I’ve grown more interested in after seeing its massive turnout at Dragon*Con this year, but most of it was the story–a mother searching for her son against a fantastical background. For some reason, I find that premise quite arresting.
Also, there were zombies involved.
Boneshaker is set in an alternate, steampunk 1880, where the Civil War has been dragging on for decades and the Gold Rush occurred forty years earlier. Sixteen years ago, Seattle was devastated by Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine, when a test run of the machine went horrifically awry, destroying half of Seattle and hitting a natural gas line that turns people into the living dead. His widow, Briar Wilkes, is eking out a living with her son, Zeke, in what remains of Seattle–the area ravaged by the Boneshaker, as the machine is known, has been sealed off, containing the deadly Blight gas. When Zeke goes over the wall in an attempt to prove his father innocent, Briar goes to rescue him.
One of the many wonderful things about Boneshaker is the straightforward plot. Briar is on a straight rescue mission after Zeke, who is trying to get to his parents’ old house inside the wall in order to find evidence to exonerate his father. While their appearance in the Blighted city causes plenty of complications for the inhabitants within (Briar’s father, Maynard, is a folk hero inside the wall), their goals remain the same throughout the novel.
Briar is a wonderful character, just as I’d hoped. When we first meet her, she comes home from a long, thankless day at a terrible job, settles into her favorite chair, and lights a pipe. Priest is careful to point out that Briar looks no younger than thirty-five, which I quite appreciated. She’s capable and clever, but not unbelievably so. She knows when she’s overwhelmed, and she’ll accept it–not gracefully, but she’ll accept it. There’s a passage where Briar talks to the Doornails, as the inhabitants inside the wall are known, marveling at their home amid all this hell. The moment she gets idealistic, zombies invade. It made me giggle. I like Briar a great deal.
The chapters switch perspective between Briar and her son, Zeke. Zeke is drawn thinner than his mother, who is just more interesting than he is, to be honest. He is most definitely a teenage boy (manic, insecure, and overconfident), but there’s not much beyond that. He’s just a regular teenage boy. His motivation is quite transparent, and once beyond the wall, he’s completely overwhelmed by the devastation within. (Briar is overwhelmed as well, but she’s much better prepared than he is.) Zeke does lend himself to slapstick humor, as he’s a mite clumsy, but it can be a little distracting at some points. Still, he’s an earnest and realistic character.
The rest of the cast is fantastic, from Rector, a teenage drug dealer Briar wheedles information out of, to Jeremiah Swakhammer, a well-mannered giant who helps Briar beyond the wall, to the mysterious Dr. Minnericht, of whom I will say nothing but this–he’s quite an enjoyably dastardly villain. Priest has taken several western stock characters and spun them into an interesting and varied bunch of characters. It’s also a remarkably compact cast, due to the hardships of surviving inside the wall.
Priest excels at suspense and action. The threat of the undead and possibly becoming undead looms at every turn inside the wall, and both Briar’s and Zeke’s initial entries inside the wall are dangerous and tense. Briar’s first encounter with the undead is especially terrifying. However, the zombies figure in less than you would think, as a great deal of the action occurs between the rival factions inside the wall. As most of the Doornails take refuge underground, the atmosphere above ground is eerie and claustrophobic–much is made of the Blight gas, which, along with the gas masks everyone wears to protect themselves, makes traveling above ground a horrifying experience. Especially once the zombies hear you.
The novel opens with a chapter on Seattle from a history book, which I found perfect to introduce the reader to the alternate history of the world of Boneshaker, which Priest has dubbed The Clockwork Century. It explains the historical backstory, but only hints at Briar’s backstory, which is revealed as the novel progresses. There’s more bits and pieces of current events that come through to Seattle–everyone is tired of the endless Civil War. As it’s background information, we don’t hear too much, but what we do hear is fascinating. One character mentions the possibility that England may recall its troops from the South. Since Priest has already told us that The Clockwork Century will be fleshed out further, I love hearing bits and pieces like that.
As the first steampunk novel I’ve read, I was delighted. All the easily identifiable trappings of steampunk are given reasons. My personal favorite is the reason for goggles beyond protective eyewear. Electricity is even given a nod occasionally, as something being experimented with. Inside the wall, there’s plenty of intriguing gadgets–a mechanical hand with a crossbow (sadly, we never see the crossbow in combat), Swakhammer’s gas mask and armor, and the systems required to keep the air clean and the citizens in mostly working condition. The only misstep, as far as I am concerned, is the quite scant explanation of the airships. While Briar’s airship excursions are perfectly fine, Zeke overhears a lot of technical details during his limited time on an airship. These details flew right over my head. Then again, that may have been what Priest was aiming for. After all, what would unschooled Zeke know about piloting an airship? It just rubbed me the wrong way, but then again, it was only one scene.
Finally, I have to note the fact that the entire text is in brown. It’s such a nice touch to the whole atmosphere.
Bottom line: A steampunk adventure set in undead Seattle in 1880, the adventures of Briar Wilkes and her son in Boneshaker is thoroughly satisfying.
I bought this book from Little Shop of Stories.