Fantastic Reviews - Fantasy Book Review
cover of Boneshaker Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Tor trade paperback - 414 pages
copyright 2009
Cover art by Jon Foster (left)

Book reviewed in May 2010
Rating: 7/10  (Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

Boneshaker is a 2010 Hugo Award nominee

       Boneshaker is a steampunk zombie novel, but much less gimmicky and more accomplished than this label suggests.  There is plenty to admire in Boneshaker, enough to account for its Hugo Award nomination, even if ultimately I don't find it an award-caliber novel.

Boneshaker is set in Seattle circa 1880, but a steampunk alternate version of Seattle largely destroyed when Dr. Leviticus Blue's massive "boneshaker" drill undermined the city's foundations while simultaneously releasing a lethal subterranean gas that renders its victims zombies.  Blue was never heard from again after the disaster, but his wife Briar Wilkes and son Zeke - unborn when Blue disappeared but now fifteen years old - scratch out a living in the outskirts of the ruined city, outside the immense walls that hold in the gas blight and zombies.

Convinced history has treated his father unfairly, Zeke puts on a gas mask and follows an underground tunnel into the city on a quest to clear Leviticus Blue's name.  With impeccable teenager logic, he braves the city alone, without telling his mother of his plans.  The story begins in earnest (over 100 pages in) when an earthquake collapses the tunnel, and Briar sets out to rescue Zeke by airship.

Amazingly, some humans still inhabit downtown Seattle, pumping clean air in from above the fog of gas and avoiding the zombies, or "rotters," as best they can.  Their incentive to remain in the walled-in city is a lucrative illegal market for the gas, the key ingredient in the drug "lemon sap," although oddly (with only one exception) these folks don't ever seem do anything with the wealth from this illicit business.

Briar and Zeke meet up with different groups of these eccentric Seattle residents.  Luckily for the two of them, the locals' resentment toward Leviticus Blue is tempered by their respect for Briar's father, a folk hero for gambling his own life, and losing, in order to release Seattle prisoners from jail just before the blight arrived.  With a mother's single-minded determination, Briar pursues Zeke while soldiering through rotters and other dangerous inhabitants of the city, including a mysterious scientist some believe to be Leviticus Blue himself.  Priest cleverly tells Briar's and Zeke's stories on separate, unspecified timelines, so even if they seem to be heading to the same place, we cannot be sure if they will arrive at the same time.

Boneshaker is an entertaining adventure, presented with great flair and imagery.  Priest successfully combines steampunk alternate history (it's 1880 but the Civil War still rages) with the zombies and (literally) horrific atmosphere.  But Boneshaker is more than just a fun zombie story.  One thing that elevates the novel is Priest's depiction of the Seattle denizens' culture and camaraderie.  We get a great glimpse of this in a scene (I want to say an "early" scene, but it happens almost 200 pages in) where Briar visits a downtown tavern, a friendly spot for locals to rest their feet, until zombies come crashing through the door.  A tough-minded woman with a mechanical hand runs the joint, cheerfully dispensing "horse piss with a sprig of mint" and no-nonsense attitude:

"That's not what you were saying."
Briar said, "Well no, it's not.  But your arm is amazing.  And..."  She sighed, and took another long drink of the terrible beer.  Her whole body shuddered as the brew went down to sour in her stomach. "And," she repeated, "I'd said all I meant to say.  You heard the rest of it.  I want to find Zeke, and I don't even know if he's alive.  And if he's not - ".
"Then it's all your fault, yes.  You mentioned.  You're being awfully hard on yourself.  Boys disobey their parents with such great regularity that it's barely worth a comment; and if yours is talented enough to rebel in such grand fashion, then you ought to consider it a point of pride that he's such a sharp lad."

Another strength of Boneshaker is the characterization of Briar Wilkes, an admirably tough and resourceful woman who is also flawed and unsure of herself.  Unfortunately, her teenage son Zeke is not portrayed with as much depth, and I found the scenes from his viewpoint less satisfying than Briar's scenes.  I wonder if the novel would have benefited from eliminating or shortening some of his passages.

This illustrates a general flaw in Boneshaker: it is not tightly written.  For an adventure story, it is much too slow getting going, and even after the pace picks up many of the conversations stretch on too long.  I also found the tone rather somber in places for a book that at other times wants to come across as a fun action-adventure.  I suppose I wouldn't mind the tone as much if I felt the novel had more to say.  For instance, if Priest is going to make the remnants of Seattle so dark and dreary, she needs to include some social commentary on how and why people will put up with such dismal circumstances.

       I enjoyed Boneshaker overall and recommend it, but its place on the Hugo ballot may be a mixed blessing, since it does not compare favorably with some of the other outstanding nominees.
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Copyright 2010 Aaron Hughes

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Strange Horizons Reviews: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest | Book Review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

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This page was last updated - 30 May 2010