Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Review – Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

From the Book Cover:
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.
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.

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?"
"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."
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.

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.


Published: September 29, 2009
ISBN #: 9780765318411
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 416

Clockwork Century Series:

  1. Boneshaker (Sept. 2009)
  2. Clementine, (2010, Subterranean Press)
  3. Dreadnought (Fall 2010)

Other Novels:

  • Four and Twenty Blackbirds (2005)
  • Wings to the Kingdom (2006)
  • Dreadful Skin (2007)
  • Not Flesh Nor Feathers (2007)
  • Fathom (2008)
  • Those Who Went Remain There Still (2008)


  1. Hey there! And I just wanted to say thanks so much for taking the time to review Boneshaker. :)

    I'll point traffic your way shortly ...

  2. Perhaps the lack of steampunk elements is a part of it being that first in a new series. I'm wondering if we'll see more of that element in subsequent books. Kind of like in movie sequels that up the bar and look far more deeply explored than their predecessor. Maybe?

  3. I've been very interested in what you thought of this one since I first heard about it here! Thanks for such an excellent review Doug. :)

    Very helpful since I was a little nervous about trying this as my first taste of steampunk. I don't think the gadgets issue is a total guy thing but maybe the lack may help someone like me who is new to the genre get comfortable without getting lost in the details?

  4. You are more than welcome Cherie. Briar is a terrific character and I hope we get to see more of her in the future.

    Hey KMont I think part of the perception is my own coming from a scifi background where in many stories all the gadgets and doodads play such a prominent role. The flavour here is decidedly steampunk but without resorting to in your face use of steampunk technology to move the story forward. If the story had dealt directly with the Boneshaker backstory then the steampunk elements would have been front and centre.

    Rhianna this is an excellent entree to steampunk themed stories without any overwhelm factor. Give it a try, I'm betting you will like it.

  5. Great review Doug!

    I can see how you would be disappointed in the lack of gadgets. I would be too. I'm a gadget whore and by the looks of the cover alone I would expect a few to be included in the book.

    I'll be keeping my eye on this one.

  6. Don't get me wrong Jessica, there are gadgets, but except for one main weapon the plot doesn't overly rely on them.

  7. Hi Doug!

    Great review and I've added Boneshaker to my ever going list! How I could I resist, it sounds great. Steampunk is something that is really starting to draw my interest, and I think I'll like starting at the beginning with the world building to see where it progresses.

    Thanks for an excellent review!

    Dottie :)

  8. Now I really want to read Boneshaker!

    BTW, here is a little grandma brag about my 2 and half year old granddaughter. She plays with my books alot, pulling them out of the bookshelf and arraying them along the floor (haha), or laying on my bed with me pretending to read all these intensely covered books of mine, which are mostly urban fantasy. The other day she was sitting on my lap while I was reading your blog when she suddenly cried out "grandma, you have that book!" She was looking at the top of your blog. Then she started pointing at all the books in the picture that I also have. What a trip. (She's my First grandchild, so all the grandma stuff is still fresh for me, so I naturally am obsessed with everything she says and does, and think everyone else should be too! heehee)

  9. I hope you like it Dottie. I'd love to compare notes once you read it.

    Mardel it's cool to see you instilling a future love for reading in your grandchild. It's amazing what kids recognize even when they can't read yet.

  10. Thanks for the review. Looking forward to this one. The cover is so fab.

    Maybe wanting more gadgets is a guy thing.

    Not to me--Go go gadget steampunk!

    How would you characterize this book? Alternate history urban fantasy with steampunk elements? Or something else? I recently read a book that had only steampunk elements, and it left me wanting more so badly. So I understand the need for more front-and-center steampunk details.

  11. Heather it is alternate history as these things tend to be but it is squarely steampunk. KMont above suggests that we'll probably see greater steampunk elements in subsequent books as Boneshaker is the setup novel to create the world and get things going. Cherie Priest on her blog pretty much confirms this in response to KMont's comment. I love that you are Gadget Girl :)

  12. I'm getting this book because of this review. :3

  13. TJ I am sure you'll find it engaging and glad I could point toward it.

  14. Hi there from Germany!

    Read the book in the last week.
    Either I'm the only one or it just feels like it. My rating: average!

    Those great reviews made me buy this steampunk story. The last one I read was the Bas-Lag-series by China Miéville. Oh dear, he is so way ahead of this fast paced effort by Cherie Priest that I feel a bit disappointed. I thought to get equal quality and innovation there. Boneshaker gathered awards or at least nominations and I still have the feeling that I read an average book with a story thousand times heard, just the setting was different.
    The ideas are ok, rotters and steampunk (airships, weapons, light) and a city in a city with a mysterious "leader" and a mother/son-relationship-character-developement which some might find interesting. Not me.
    It was just no surprise at all what happened. Even not the Minnericht mystery. The Blight gas itself also was not explained to my satisfaction. It sounded a bit sloppy. I know this was not the main point of the story which surely was the mother-son-relationship and there love/care for each other, it was the fact that in every evil place you'll find someone who is willing to help you. There is no depressive atmosphere/world/lifeform which cannot be overcome.

    It was all too easy. Good for a movie to be made out of it, but not good enough for a fastidious reader.

    It's not bad at all. So don't be worried that I still rate the book with a 7 out of 10. But it could have been way better. Bestowed potential.


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