Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: September 2009
Paperback: 416 pages
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Clockwork Century series
In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus was Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine born.
But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.
Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes. Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenaged boy to support, but she and Ezekiel are managing. Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history.
His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.
How did we get this book: We bought our copies
Why did we read this book: It’s Steampunk week and Boneshaker has been praised to the skies by Steampunkers, reviewers and recently even made into Library Journal’s list of “Core” Steampunk titles.
Ana: Boneshaker is another book I had been looking forward to reading for a long time and holding off to until we had our Steampunk Week. Given the amount of praise it received, the fact that very recently it made into Library Journal’s list of core Steampunk titles and the fact that Cherie Priest seems to really know what she is talking about, I had great expectations about the book. And they were sort of met, as overall the book proved to be a solid read. I liked most specially its sympathetic duo of mother-son protagonists, the lovely writing, and the setting (an alternate 19th century Seattle). Plus, Zombies and Pirates = fun! However, upon reflection, the very premise of the book did not hold to close scrutiny and ironically, that includes the very Steampunk nature of the story.
Thea: I have to agree wholeheartedly with Ana on this one. I was ecstatic with Boneshaker‘s unique premise – Civil War Era Steampunk Zombies! Hiyo! Sign me up!
And…well, Boneshaker is a bit of a mixed bag. The premise is wonderfully imaginative, but, as Ana says, kind of implodes on itself when subjected to any level of scrutiny. This history is a mess as is the actual source of the zombification of Seattle’s inhabitants – and I’m not exactly sure I’d label this as a true work of Steampunk. That said, I enjoyed the overall story and the horror aspects of the book, and certainly read it eagerly enough, which counts for a lot.
On the Plot:
Ana: It’s the 1880s, and the United States is still plagued by the legacy of the Civil War. In Seattle it has been 16 years since the eccentric scientist Leviticus Blue built his Boneshaker, a tunnelling machine built to drill through the ice fields of Alaska. The machine went berserk in the middle of the town basically destroying it all and in the process hitting the underground reserves of a mysterious gas – the Blight – which, if inhaled, turns people into Zombies. The inhabitants of the town fled, authorities built a huge wall which has been keeping the gas and the zombies (or “rotters”) in.
Briar Wilkes and her son Zeke leave just outside the walls and try to make do with her meagre salary as a worker at the water treatment plant (filtering the effects of the Plight) . Their lives are not easy since Briar is the widow of the infamous Leviticus Blue and no one will let her forget that, including her son. In an attempt to prove that his father was in fact not the criminal that everybody thinks he is, Zeke sneaks into the walled City in search for clues sand a desperate Briar goes after him when his only viable way out collapses after an earthquake and in the process discovers that are people still living inside. She must find him and quick, before the rotters – or someone worse – find them first.
As plots go, Boneshaker’s start off with a lot of potential. The impetus for the story – a mother who admitted not being the most perfect and open of mothers, in search of her son and to try and mend their relationship spoke to me like only a character-driven story can speak. It is also undeniable that Cherie Priest’s prose is lovely and enticing. I have nothing to say against pacing (it is rocketing good fun!) or against the overall plotting: mother searches son in parallel stories, both run from zombies, run into pirates, danger abound, there is a villain who might or might not Leviticus Blue himself. It is all actually pretty good.
It is just when you think about the details that things start to fall through.
For example: there is a lack of real science. It puzzled me for example, that it had been 16 years since the accident happened and yet there were no scientists studying the phenomenon – where did it come from? What was it? How to reverse it? Well, that does not sound Steampunk ish at all. I would expect at least one mad scientist somewhere making a dash to understand it. Furthermore, can a wall really stop the spreading of a gas? For 16 years? Without any leaks? Without it rising above it? Leaking through pipes? Really? Sometimes, I wondered if the gas was not a mere excuse for the use of Goggles and masks – making it a choice for Steampunk Aesthetics than for Steampunk Science – especially when there is barely an appearance of the very Boneshaker of the title.
Another thing that made me wonder (and wonder and wonder): Briar discovers that there were people still living in the inside. Citizens of Seattle, basically living like scavengers , forever having to wear masks and living in fear of the zombies and I asked myself over and again: why? Why would anyone stay if they didn’t have to? Surely there were alternative – better ones, than to live in a place where you can’t go outside where you can’t breathe, where you can’t get any real food because of a mortal Gas that can turn you into a zombie? Surely.
Yes, Steampunk can be fun but Scott Westerfelf has proved with his Leviathan that you can have a Steampunk novel that is both fun and yet rich with Steampunk elements that actually matter.
Having said that: I sustain that I did have a great time reading the novel, despite these misgivings. I find this series has a great potential. Who knows, perhaps the sequels will be more Steampunk heavy?
Thea: What Ana said. When reading Boneshaker, two things immediately jumped out at me:
1. There’s a huge “buyability” problem with the story.
As Ana mentions, the solution to deal with Seattle was to wall it off – literally, with a big wall. And this would protect the rest of the world from zombies, and from the mysterious “Blight.” Which is a gas. I repeat – a gas. How exactly does a stone wall contain a gas? This seems a little silly. THen, given the fact that Seattle is the rainiest city in the continental United States, how in heck can the Blight gas be so prevalent as to completely ensheath the city, impervious to the months and months of rain that should clear the air? Furthermore, how is the Blight still leaking out after 16 years? This must be quite a reservoir indeed – and if the rain isn’t washing it away, and an accumulation of 16 years’ worth of a thick gas is spreading through Seattle, wouldn’t it have been enough to spread a little further (as opposed to being contained by the walls)? And Ana makes a good point – why wouldn’t the government, or some enterprising scientist or company for that matter, be interested in finding out what exactly the Blight is? After 16 years, no one is interested in discovering why the gas turns people into zombies? No one wants to know where the gas came from, what it is, and if it exists anywhere else in the country? Heck, even allowing that US government is so shattered and preoccupied by the legacy of the Civil War (which requires a huge effort to suspend disbelief in and of itself), wouldn’t anyone be interested in weaponizing this gas? I was kind of surprised and disappointed that Ms. Priest didn’t go there, it seems so obvious – the Blight as a biochemical weapon to be harnessed for the American Civil War and perhaps for the inevitable World War?! – but perhaps that’s fodder for a future book.
Beyond the haziness of the Blight (lame pun intended), there’s also a problem in terms of believability of era, and technology. Which brings me to my second point:
2. The technology and science aspects are so vague as to suggest that Boneshaker is much more of an aesthetic work.
And this is totally fine – just like with genres like Science Fiction, you can get the hard Stephen Baxter stuff, or the softer, Gene Roddenberry stuff. But my problem with Boneshakeris that the time period and the steampunk aesthetic are irrelevant to the storyline (yes, the bone-shaking drill unleashed the gas that caused the zombies and the premise of the novel, but this could have been any drill. You don’t even see the drill until the end of the book, and the cataclysmic effect is completely off-stage). This might have been the distant future or present day or even on another earth-like planet. For example, the characters speak in the modern vernacular, so it’s easy to forget the time period altogether. And if you can take away the technology, and if you can take away the time period and are essentially left with the same story, these elements are superfluous.
I should also note that Ms. Priest has an afterward to the book in which she claims that all of the historical inconsistencies (so far as the size, importance, development and specifics of Seattle) are intentional – which explains why certain buildings and landmarks are completed and/or in different areas than they are in real life. But my points still remain – I imagine that Cherie Priest is very connected to Seattle and thus chose to write Boneshaker in this locale, but it seems like too much of a stretch to truly work. If this had been in New York, or Philadelphia for example, I think it would have worked to the book’s credit. Or set it in a totally new city altogether, bypassing all of these other historical/structural/environmental critiques.
In any case, despite all of my reservations, I really did enjoy Boneshaker in its capacity as an SF horror novel and a page-turner. A mother set on finding her son in a zombie infested city? How could I not love this?! The pacing is excellent and although a little too contemporary to work in the time period, Ms. Priest has undeniably strong narrative technique and a gift for storytelling. This alone is more than enough to recommend the novel, even if it’s a little skimpy on the details.
On The Characters:
Ana: I think of the greatest strengths of the novel are its engaging and sympathetic characters. I absolutely loved Briar and Zere both as separate entities and their relationship. Especially because they were so freaking flawed and sometimes even annoying. Zeke behaved like a quintessential teenager – prone to do stupid things, but with the heart in the right place. Same thing goes for Briar – I really liked how she reflected upon her reasons for keeping secrets from her son and the moment she decided to change it all. She is fierce Plus, there is one revelation in the end, which even though I saw coming from a mile away, I still thought was awesome and made all the difference in the world adding an extra layer of complexity of the novel – and every single mention of a certain character from the start.
There are also a plethora of secondary characters that although not really that well-developed, were actually pretty entertaining in their own way. I was quite fond of the air pirates (especially Cly) and the underground refugees Lucy the one-armed barmaid and Jeremiah.
Thea: I have to agree with Ana in that the characters are a great asset to Boneshaker. I loved Briar, in particular, as the flawed mother that loves her son, no matter what. There’s a pivotal scene at the end of the book, a confession, that is so heart-wrenchingly honest and moving, it truly makes the book. Ezekiel, or Zeke, as Briar’s son felt a little less developed as a character to me, however. Yes, he was very much a teenager, and very believable in his quest to exonerate his grandfather’s legacy, and even his father (the creator of the titled Boneshaker) – but other than this desire, he lacks the well-rounded finish that his mother has in abundance.
Other secondary characters pop in and out and are enjoyable additions – in particular I loved Lucy, the one-armed barkeep and, a Native American Princess (who is nothing like the princess you have in mind, I guarantee it), and the gruff, lovable Jeremiah Swakhammer. Of course, there’s also the shadowy, nefarious Dr. Minnericht that runs Seattle’s underground ruins with an iron fist…
Altogether, an enjoyable and connecting cast.
BUT IS IT STEAMPUNK?
Ana: Weeeeell. There are undeniably, elements generally related to Steampunk in this novel. Alternate history. CHECK. Goggles, Dirigibles, some Steam technology, CHECK. A mad scientist. CHECK. However, I think those elements are only skin deep – remove them and they wouldn’t really make a difference to that world (although obviously they do to this story) . Those elements seem too confined to be really Steampunk-ish. But then again, the Steampunk seal has been signed, sealed and delivered by Steampunk luminaries from all over the place so what the hell do I know?
Thea: I’m sorta of the same mind as Ana here. Yes, there are steampunk elements up the wazoo (what with the bone-shaking drill, goggles, a couple of airships, and other strange inventions sprinkled throughout)…but is it really steampunk? I guess it really depends on your definition. For me, the aesthetic elements were strong but somewhat irrelevant, and it’s not the best example of a steampunk novel in my personal opinion. There’s no radical social critique, nor is there a dazzlingly central technological element. But, as Ana says, what the hell do I know? I can understand why this is labeled as steampunk, but I also understand why some folks might not see it as such.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the prologue:
From Unlikely Episodes in Western History
Chapter 7, “Seattle’s Walled and Peculiar State.”
Work in progress, by Hale Quarter.
Unpaved, uneven trails pretended to be roads; they tied the nation’s coasts together like laces holding a boot, binding it with crossed strings and crossed fingers. And over the great river, across the plains, between the mountain passes the settlers pushed from east to west. They trickled over the Rockies in dribs and drabs, in wagons and coaches.
Or this is how it began.
In California there were nuggets the size of walnuts lying on the ground—or so it was said, and truth travels slowly when rumors have wings of gold. The trickle of humanity became a magnificent flow. The glittering western shores swarmed with prospectors, pushing their luck and pushing their pans into the gravelly streams, praying for fortunes.
In time, the earth grew crowded, and claims became more tenuous. Gold came out of the ground in dust so fine that the men who mined it could’ve inhaled it.
In 1850 another rumor, winged and sparkling, came swiftly from the north.
The Klondike, it said. Come and cut your way through the ice you find there. A fortune in gold awaits a determined enough man.
The tide shifted, and looked to the northern latitudes. This meant very, very good things for the last frontier stop before the Canadian border—a backwater mill town on Puget Sound called Seattle after the native chief of the local tribes. The muddy village became a tiny empire nearly overnight as explorers and prospectors paused to trade and stock up on supplies.
While American legislators argued over whether or not to buy the Alaska territory, Russia hedged its bets and considered its asking price. If the land really was pocked with gold deposits, the game would absolutely change; but even if a steady supply of gold could be located, could it be retrieved? A potential vein, spotted intermittently but mostly buried beneath a hundred feet of permanent ice, would make for an ideal testing ground.
In 1860, the Russians announced a contest, offering a 100,000 ruble prize to the inventor who could produce or propose a machine that could mine through ice in search of gold. And in this way, a scientific arms race began despite a budding civil war.
Across the Pacific Northwest big machines and small machines were tinkered into existence. They were tricky affairs designed to withstand bitter cold and tear through turf that was frozen diamond-hard. They were powered by steam and coal, and lubricated with special solutions that protected their mechanisms from the elements. These machines were made for men to drive like stagecoaches, or designed to dig on their own, controlled by clockwork and ingenious guiding devices.
But none of them were rugged enough to tackle the buried vein, and the Russians were on the verge of selling the land to America for a relative pittance… when a Seattle inventor approached them with plans for an amazing machine. It would be the greatest mining vehicle ever constructed: fifty feet long and fully mechanized, powered by compressed steam. It would boast three primary drilling and cutting heads, positioned at the front of the craft; and a system of spiral shoveling devices mounted along the back and sides would scoop the bored-through ice, rocks, or earth back out of the drilling path. Carefully weighted and meticulously reinforced, this machine could drill in an almost perfect vertical or horizontal path, depending on the whims of the man in the driver’s seat. Its precision would be unprecedented, and its power would set the standard for all such devices to come.
But it had not yet been built.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: It is also worth mentioning that Boneshaker comes in a beautiful package. Not only is the cover gorgeous (although irrelevant and misleading), but the book itself is printed on thick paper in this lovely rust brown print, lending even more to the steampunk aesthetic.
Ana: 7 – Very Good
Thea: 7 – Very Good (Though it was a close call, bordering a 6)
Reading Next: A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire