From the Book Cover:One of my most eagerly awaited reads for the fall season has been the steampunk novel Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, the first in her Clockwork Century universe and I had a chance to read it this past holiday weekend. Did it meet my expectations? Well, yes and no. Now there’s a perfectly unambiguous answer for you. I’ll try to explain.
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.
The late 19th century alternate history world that the characters of Boneshaker inhabit is richly imagined with just enough tweaks of events to lend perfect plausibility to this new darker America where the War Between the States is a protracted and ongoing affair. A pall lies over the nation and while the war has no direct effect on Seattle, this mood is reflected in the descriptions of the perpetually dreary weather of the Outskirts and its inhabitant’s demeanour and in the claustrophobic and murky feel of the blight and pressing hordes of rotters within the walled city.
Against this backdrop Briar sets off to rescue her son, the one constant in her life that means more to her than anything. She has regrets that she never shared her truths about his father and grandfather but gains some insight in this conversation with Lucy, who befriends her in the city -
"Then it's all your fault, yes. You mentioned. You're being awfully hard on yourself. Boys disobey their parents with such great regular¬ity 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." She leaned forward on her one el¬bow, laying her mechanical forearm down on the bar. "Now tell me, you don't really think—do you—that there's anything you could've done to keep him out of here?"The core of Boneshaker is this tale of the abiding mother/son relationship and it is very satisfying indeed. The story is told in alternating points of view between Zeke and his mother with each learning their own truths as events unfold. But Boneshaker is also at heart an adventure novel with stalwart and honourable characters as well as devious and irredeemable ones. In some ways it is like a western opera.
"I don't know. Probably not."
Someone behind Briar gave her back a friendly pat. It startled her, but there was nothing salacious about the gesture so she didn't flinch away from it. Besides, this was more friendly human contact than she'd had in years, and the pleasantness of it smoothed the keen, guilty edge of her sorrow.
"Let me ask you this, then," Lucy tried. "What if you'd given him all the answers to every question he ever asked. Would he have liked those answers?"
"No, he wouldn't have," she confessed.
"Would he have accepted them?"
"I doubt it."
The barwoman sighed in sympathy and said, "And there you go, don't you? One day, he'd have gotten a bee in his bonnet about the old homestead, and he'd have come poking about regardless. Boys are boys, they are. They're useless and ornery as can be, and when they grow up they're even worse."
Briar said, "But this particular boy is mine. I love him, and I owe him. And I can't even find him."
Both Zeke’s and Briar’s journey through the blighted city in search of one another is fraught with danger and menace as they combat the blighted environment, the zombies, and other inhabitants, while seeking safety and escape. The pacing and suspense is excellent. And most gratifying of all is the terrific twist at the end that totally knocked my socks off. It’s a kind of Sixth Sense ending that sheds a whole new light on the entire story.
So for the most part, Boneshaker met my expectations of a rousing steampunk adventure with a only few reservations that kept it from hitting the perfect note. Surprisingly one of my minor disappointments was the paucity of real steampunk elements. The presence of steampunk technology is mostly relegated to a few minor inventions and the eponymous Boneshaker itself which is only historically relevant to the story. Maybe wanting more gadgets is a guy thing. There is a greater impression that it is steampunk than the reality conveys.
Over the course of the reading of Boneshaker, I sometimes found it difficult to sustain my willingness to suspend my disbelief in the core premise of the walled and blighted Seattle. Questions such as why anyone would choose to stay in either part of the city were never really answered to my satisfaction. Why not pick up and leave? Why not just kill and obliterate the zombies/rotters? The fact that these people had endured 16 years of this oppressive world was hard to swallow. Yes there are economic considerations but under close scrutiny their reasons and motivations didn’t quite stand up for me.
Boneshaker is a story with a great heart and for that alone it is worth your time. It is also a rollicking adventure populated with memorable characters. This one didn’t quite hit the full head of steam I was hoping for, but it wasn’t far off the mark. I look forward to new tales in the Clockwork Century in next year’s Clementine and Dreadnaught.