Boneshaker

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. Copyright 2009. Steampunk. ISBN 9780765318411.

Boneshaker_Cover_Front

Story:

The discovery of gold in the Pacific Northwest acted as the catalyst for several events: The California Gold Rush, a complication of the American Civil War, and the invention of Dr. Leviticus Blue’s Incredible Bone Shaking Drill Engine. The machine was supposed to bring fast wealth to the Russian prospectors who had commissioned it from Dr. Blue, but on its first test run, everything went wrong. The machine ran rampant throughout the underground of downtown Seattle, causing earthquakes and collapse and releasing a blighting gas that turned those who breathed it for too long into the living dead.

Sixteen years later, Seattle has been walled off from the rest of the world. Everything from the rotters to airship pirates to Chinese engineers and others who have refused to leave roam the poisoned streets. Outside the walls of the city, things are hardly better. Blue’s widow finds herself working to make ends meet in the Outskirts and trying to ignore a reputation as blighted as the mindless hordes inside the Seattle wall.

Then her son, chasing the ghosts of his father and grandfather, enters the devastated city.

Style and Plot:

As will quickly become apparent, author Cherie Priest has rearranged historic events into a new timeline, effectively making Boneshaker what’s called an “alternate history” novel, in addition to being steampunk. This most heavily effects the construction of Seattle, which is quite advanced, making it a much larger city than it historically was in 1879, but surrounding events (such as the Civil War) are kept on the peripheral. Although the main characters don’t have much reason to be worried about the war, as they are preoccupied with more pressing matters, it would have been interesting to have a little more discussion of it and other current events to build up the world that Boneshaker is set in—especially since the novel is one of several within the same universe. There is opportunity for this, since both Briar and Zeke meet a few airship captains who have certainly been out in the world and would be able to share news of the rest of the North American continent.

The main story of Boneshaker is focused on Briar’s search for Ezekiel, and Ezekiel’s search for what’s left of his father’s and grandfather’s legacies. It’s an action-oriented novel that would lend itself well to the big screen, and Priest is good at maintaining tension throughout the quieter sections, but the novel could use a little more exploration of motives and surrounding circumstances. Why have stragglers stayed in the city? Where did the antagonist acquire his resources? There are also several questions that the book leaves unanswered, some of them concerning the fates of two important side characters. Although these could be answered in subsequent books, the reader has become invested enough in the story to find that the loose ends make the ending rather unsatisfying.

Although Priest weaves an engaging story, she skimps on setting description. Priest has a wealth of information available to her, since the setting is Seattle, and also has a lot of freedom to do as she wishes with the setting, since she’s written an alternative history where almost anything goes. Unfortunately, she hasn’t used this to its full potential. Description varies from too focused on things that don’t matter (for example, clothing), confusing (much of Seattle), or very sparse (the train station compound).

Characterization:

Briar Wilkes is the bone-weary mother of Ezekiel, and a woman who does what she needs to in order to get what she wants—which, in the beginning of the novel, is simply to provide for herself and her son, and to hell with what anyone might say about her husband. When Zeke dashes off into the city with no one else to care about what happens to him, she simply grits her teeth and applies her determination to chasing after him and bringing him out alive. She’s street-smart and resourceful, but doesn’t seem to have a lot of time to waste on character depth. She certainly has motivations and flaws, but they all seem to fall a little flat so that the book can spend more time on the action.

The same goes for Zeke. He mostly acts as a petulant teen boy, but seems to be just a little too stupid and naive to have survived for as long as he has in the unforgiving Outskirts of Seattle. Inside the city, he’s constantly blundering into one mess or another without much thought or planning given to his actions. He rarely does anything for himself, and must rely on other people to get him out of his many perilous situations.

Priest does a good job setting up her next few novels by including secondary characters that obviously have more elaborate backstories than are talked about in Boneshaker. A quick perusal of the descriptions of future books promises more stories about them to look forward to, but again, a few more details on this front would hardly have gone amiss.

Some words on Priest’s female characters: Although there is a loud buzz these days about women needing stronger representation in entertainment, an author shouldn’t resort to having all her women act in the same manner because that is what’s seen as strength. There are three major female characters in Boneshaker, and they are all very similar to each other: They get done what needs to get done, don’t fuss, can fight as well or better as the next person, and they each seem to have a level of disregard for men in the story. Except for minor differences in mannerisms and histories (and again, a little more elaboration here would have gone a long way), they don’t do very much to stand out from one another. A quote from Lori sums it up nicely: “Screw writing ‘strong’ women. Write well-rounded women. Write a woman who kicks ass. Write a woman who cowers in a corner. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man [etc].”

 

What hope can a mother have for the survival of her son in a poisoned city? Technology, destruction, and hubris come clashing together to answer this question in Boneshaker. 3 ½ out of 5 stars.

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The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder. Copyright 2010. Steampunk Fantasy. ISBN 9781616142407

At least the cover's interesting.

Story:

Four factions are shaping the landscape of 1861 London: The Technologists, responsible for every new contraption that pollutes the city air; the Rakes, anarchists all; the Eugenicists, who breed animals to fill certain niches and provide unpaid labor; and the Libertines, who oppose repression and advocate creativity and vision. But there is far more going on here than meets the eye. Werewolves, or loup-garous, are terrorizing the slums and kidnapping young chimney-sweeps, and an outlandish apparition nick-named Spring-Heeled Jack is wandering London and assaulting young women, then disappearing. Sir Richard Francis Burton, a famous explorer, stands amidst the chaos and has been commissioned by Lord Palmerston to find out exactly what’s been going on, and go to any lengths to set things to rights.

Style and Technique:

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack is written in the third-person, following Captain Burton and occasionally his young friend, an eccentric poet named Algernon Swinburne. While the events surrounding these two have the potential to make a daring adventure of a story, author Mark Hodder seems intent on dragging his premise through the mud by relying on convenience and insipidity. The foreshadowing is clunky and unconvincing. The explanations given for the new technologies and the work of the Eugenicists are completely unbelievable and have only the very slightest grounding in anything real, which fails to give them credibility. Hodder stretches our suspension of disbelief to the absolute limits, and then shatters it with the appearances of dozens of famous names: Oscar Wilde, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Richard Mockton Milnes among them. Some of these familiar names are mentioned once and never again, and serve no overall purpose except to add just a dash of “What the hell is going on and why won’t it stop” to this smorgasbord of incredulity.

Things don’t get better as the novel proceeds. Every character speaks in a highly twee fashion, overly jovial and inane. Finally, despite the large amount of female characters involved in the story, every single one of them is one dimensional, flighty, stupid, or only there to be sexually assaulted. This is especially unfortunate because many of the female characters have great potential to become something actually interesting, but the potential is half-heartedly used, off-screen, or abandoned altogether.

While some exceptions must be made for these issues because the setting is steampunk Victorian England and the reader must take into account the times, Hodder maintains his trend of running away with what is acceptable, making the story rather like a painting done in only primary colors, with no subtlety or shading.

The saving grace of this novel—or rather, the part that everyone should skip to and not bother with the rest—is Part Two: Being the True History of Spring-Heeled Jack. This part is like a novella on its own, where Hodder’s talent, thought by now to be a myth, really shines. It’s fast-paced, fascinating, and obviously deals with the origin of Spring-Heeled Jack and how he’s affected Victorian London. Spring-Heeled Jack by himself is a very interesting character with strange and twisted motivations, making this section a bit grotesque but far more engaging than the rest of the novel.

Characterization:

To the writing world, the term “Mary Sue” is a curse, and to have one in your novel is anathema. A Mary Sue is a female character that is perfect in every facet, from personality and looks (invariably every man falls in love with her, and sometimes the women, too) to sometimes supernatural ability. (For a more detailed explanation of the Mary Sue, look here.)

Sir Richard Francis Burton is the male version of this: a Gary Stu. He is incapable of being wrong, and so skilled with disguise that he was able to fool a group of pilgrims he traveled to Mecca with into believing he was an Arab. It’s also stated several times, at least once by almost every character, that his facial structure is savage and often makes men hostile to him, but it doesn’t in the least prevent him from being able to talk to anyone across social classes, or every eligible young woman from falling in love with him. Even his enemies seem affected by him, and when given the opportunity to kill him and be done with it, they choose instead to only wound him, or better yet, give a speech. Burton himself is headstrongly oblivious, makes some terrible decisions (which the book either excuses or uses as fodder for his dark and occasionally tortured demeanor), and a bit of a gender chauvinist.

Burton’s counterpart is Algernon Swinburne, a drunk and a follower of Marquis de Sade (which you will be reminded of at every turn). The novel tells us that he is a failed poet, making it difficult to discern how he pays for the brandy he drowns himself in. This is a man who doesn’t seem quite human, as he dances about, speaks in an exuberantly high-pitched voice that’s annoying even to read, and doesn’t react to fear. He is relatable only in the sense that everyone knows how irritating it is to have a mosquito buzzing in your ear.

Everyone else is used mainly as a vehicle for exposition or a sudden, fumbling flashback. Swinburne, who’s supposed to be Burton’s partner and the second main character, falls victim to this. The interests of the main antagonists seem to be less world domination and more monologues, and they likely would have succeeded (by this point, you’re nearly rooting for them to win out of sheer frustration) if they simply followed the plan instead of talking about it. The Strange Affair is not populated with characters; it’s populated with a variety of miniature Wikipedias.

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack is less steampunk mystery and more tragedy, due to the unfortunate pay-off of an otherwise incredible premise. 1 ½ out of 5 stars.

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The Summer of the Bear

The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen. Copyright 2010. Fiction. ISBN 9780230748705

The Summer of the Bear

 

Story:
A diplomat in the Cold War is dead: suspected suicide, suspected traitor. His family—a wife, two daughters, and a son—attempt to adjust to a new life out in the Hebrides. The wife, Letty, struggles to reconcile herself to the fact that her husband’s country thinks he’s a traitor. Each child—Georgiana, 17; Alba, 14; and Jamie, 8—have their own difficulties understanding why their father is dead. And somehow, among it all, a wrestling bear has escaped from its handler and is roaming the Scottish countryside, looking for something.
Style and Technique:
The Summer of the Bear is written in the third person, alternating between the current story and flashbacks. Writing for two timelines can often add an extra level of intrigue to a story as the past and the present attempt to reconcile themselves, but Pollen handles this technique very clumsily, and it comes off as disorganized. The story will spend a chapter or two in the Hebrides before switching to Bonn for a chapter spent in flashback, which is a solid method of comparing two timelines. However, there are several points during the chapter set in the present where the narrative will, with little or no warning, switch to flashback, jolting the reader out of the story’s flow and necessitating a recalibration.
The story itself is often quite unnecessary: a hundred pages could have easily been cut from the final draft without much of an impact having been made. It seems that the reader is often reading a rehashing of something that the story has already been over once or twice, and the narrative is weighted down to a near-death crawl towards the middle of the novel. The pace picks up again two-thirds of the way through the book, only to slow down again at the beginning of the climax all the way through the denouement. It does answer the questions posed by the narrative (was it suicide or murder? What happened in East Germany? Why the bear?), but does so slowly and sometimes in an unsatisfying manner. Although plenty of time passes during the book, the characters all seem to be stuck focused on one thing, and never able to move beyond it or think of anything else.
Pollen’s strength lies in her descriptive abilities. You can see the windswept moors of Ballanish, the area of the Hebrides in which the present part of the story is set, smell the cold tang of the sea, and hear the symphony of crashing waves and calling seabirds. Bonn, a city in Germany where much of the flashback timeline takes place, is sharply contrasted. It seems to be illustrated in shades of grey, which give off the strong sense of physical and societal restrictions that were placed on Letty while she and her children lived there as the family of a diplomat, no easy position to be in.
Characterization:
Pollen has several characters to keep track of, and she establishes each of them with their own specific trait, but just one. Letty is the grieving mother, cold and distanced from her children. Georgiana is the sexually frustrated seventeen-year-old, sole witness to the clandestine mission her father undertook on the other side of the Iron Curtain that’s caused so much suspicion to be posthumously piled on him. Alba is the poisonous adolescent with murder in every thought, and irrational in every action. Jamie is the innocent boy with a painful naïveté towards every situation he finds himself in, to the point where the reader must question whether they were that oblivious at age eight.
These characters have evolved, to some extent, by the end of the novel, but it’s done in a jerky or unbelievable manner (for example, Georgiana’s character development happens entirely at the hands of a character who is never mentioned again after they’ve fulfilled their purpose as her catalyst). Letty, although (understandably) the one most fixated on her husband’s death, is the most dynamic and three-dimensional character, although within the context of this book, these terms must be used loosely. Furthermore, although the characterization could be described as sparse, the author does provide the reader with very sudden, very intimate details in a manner that comes across as a person you just met describing their colonoscopy.
It’s really the secondary characters who add a bit more shine to the story, from Alick, the perpetually drunk yet still responsible groundskeeper in Ballanish, to the Ambassadress, a constant antagonist to Letty. These characters aren’t any more fleshed out than the main characters, but are more interesting by far and bring a little life and change of pace to an otherwise dreary story.

Although the premise of The Summer of the Bear promises a story of political intrigue and a touch of whimsy, the real thing is gray, dull, and far too long. 2 out of 5 stars.

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