Due to an unknown reason, I was put off by Boneshaker’s cover for a long time. No idea why – maybe I didn’t like the angle, I don’t know. But you know what they say about books and their covers and Boneshaker was no exception. It was an excellent novel: fun, fast-paced, great characters, tight storyline with few to no loose ends, humor, dread, and a wonderfully brewed sense of desperation.
Too many so-called “steampunk” stories do what bad fantasy books do. That is to say they mix together a bunch of elements that someone else came up with and add a half-cocked plot full of 2D characters that any high school creative writing student could draw up. Just because its a “steampunk” kind of book doesn’t mean you can just add steam-driven robots without explaining why in the world they are there (ahemm! Looking at you Stephen Hunt). Priest’s story is pretty original, to the contrary, and that is why I liked it so much.
In her all out adventure tale, she puts a mix of fantasy, steampunk, horror, and historical fiction, adds a dash of salt and pepper, stirs, and lets it go bang! Her alternate 19th century United States – in which Stonewall Jackson didn’t die and the Civil War is still going on in the 1870’s, in which zeppelins are a major mode of transportation of goods and cargo, in which a drill invented for mining went horribly awry unleashing a toxic gas in downtown Seattle turning those who suffered breathing it into zombies – is a joy to read about. It’s inventive without being ludicrous (ok, except the zombies part!), and uses just enough of the truth to be a highly believable vision.
Downtown Seattle (which didn’t really exist quite like that at this time, but this is her alternate world) has been overrun by the “rotters,” or the zombie like beings that people turned into when they came into contact with the “blight gas” released when the Boneshaker drill invented by Leviticus Blue wither went awry or was used maliciously. Dr. Blue’s widow is among the survivors and now lives outside the walled-in section, in an area called the Outskirts. She and her son, Zeke, are ostracized by society for being connected to the infamous inventor and barely making it. Zeke, who doesn’t know much about his father seeks to clear his name and so enters, illegally and clandestinely, the walled-in area of downtown armed with only a gas mask and his famous last name. There he discovers an entire alternate society, fighting to survive in the harshest of conditions where even breathing bad air can mean your life or worse, your undeath.
His mother panics when he disappears and so goes on the search, herself entering the forbidden area. They each encounter different elements of the creatively thought out under-society, from the criminal to the heroic. The story is of Zeke’s search for truth and for Briar’s search for her son, and both of their search’s for some semblance of meaning in the chaos.
Priest makes effective use of tropes but never overdoes it (the zeppelins came the closest) and I was thrilled by almost every twist and turn of events. The “rotters” element added an extra level of danger and social commentary (on the gold rush?) that was both harrowing and fun. Her prose was well executed and after I got used to it, I even liked the publisher’s decision to publish the text in a sepia tone. I enjoyed the world she wrote most of all, and the character with which she populated it a close second, which is why I’m excited about some followup projects taking place in the same “Clockwork Century” world and even with a few of the same characters. I really appreciated her sense of American history and how she wove American folklore and our history of racial tension into the narrative. The ending was surprisingly touching and brought to conclusion a number of minor mysteries she’d set up throughout. All in all, this was a pleasure to read and I was disappointed when it was over! I look forward to more from Cherie Priest in the “Clockwork Century” and anticipate taking a trip backward to some of her previous works, southern gothic ghost stories!