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