Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker

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!

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So bad

When I’m 396 pages into a 600 page book and I have no idea what is happening, how the characters got to where they are, how they can do the things they are doing (a helpless 16 year old orphan suddenly gets a knife and a pair of pistols and he can take down  ten or twelve trained killers without breaking a sweat?!), or really anything about the characters, then I begin to get a bit tired, a bit weary, and I want to put down the book.

But I also have this fundamental problem stopping a book in the middle.  I’ve written about these struggles before, but I am getting better at doing it.  There is just too much good writing out there to waste time reading the bad.   And, Stephen Hunt, I’m sorry to say, but The Court of the Air is so bad. 

Before I decided to put it down I went to my friends over at sffworld see if maybe I was being unfair or hasty.  I wanted to see what other readers had written, as I knew that this book was the Book of the Month for June.  Well, only fourteen of the multitude at sffworld even replied to the June thread, all uniformly panning the book, but offering hope for Hunt’s future endeavors.  I’ll reserve judgment, but most likely Hunt has lost me as a reader.  And so, with disappointed resolve, I’ll remove my bookmark from The Court of the Air and turn to my to-be-read shelf just in time for vacation.  I am excited!  There have been a couple of books I’ve been reserving for my vacation time coming up because I know they will be good.  The only question is, which shall I read first??

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by: Jesse Bullington

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Under the Dome by Stephen King

Uncle Silas by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

I don’t know what I’m going to pick…

It’s in the Air

It should give some indication as to how I like Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air that I am 240 pages into it and have not yet blogged about it.  The novel immediately grabbed my attention from page one with its fast paced action, dangerous situations, and likable characters.  But after the first hundred pages or so it began to lose me a bit.  The action all but stopped.  More and more characters were introduced with little or no characterization or fleshing out.  Different “steampunk” tropes were dragged out to color the world in which he’s writing with almost no word of explanation.  I understand that a good steampunk story can have some sort of steam-driven machine with some semblance of sentience.  But just because it is a steampunk story doesn’t mean you, as an author, get to just declare there are steam men without exploring the idea somewhat!  Steampunk is not yet an established enough genre to do that!  You need to say why there are steam men, what their place is in society, how they were created, and so on.  And!  And, doesn’t it defeat the mechanical purpose of them to give them both mystical powers and a steam-deity?!?

So, the writing is not bad, but neither is it superb.  The story comes and goes in starts and fits, but just enough to keep me interested.  I hope that the action picks up again with the characters originally introduced, because when he was doing that, it was really, really good, exciting reading.  Right now though it’s fallen into a bit of a predictable fantasy-style adventure: characters being chased by a bad guy, party of NPCs introduced, all with different abilities and desires, running through the world toward some undefinable goal shooting off fireballs behind them to keep their would be captors at bay, all the while being watched by some all seeing organization/deity/machine.  Tired…tired…tired…

Of Mechanics and Alchemists

After a weekend of reading Poe’s poems and short stories, I picked up my next novel, one that has been sitting on my shelf for a while now.  I had a hard time picking what I wanted to read next; there seemed to be too many good choices.  So, I solicited some advice from a message board I follow and one person said that whenever they are confronted with that problem, they try to knock out a few of the shorter books that have been sitting there a while, rather than jump into a dense, long or otherwise heavy endeavor.  Finding that sound advice, I picked up Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone.  It is an urban steampunk fantasy about an automaton with a clockwork heart in a city rife with political strife.  The two main parties are the Mechanics and the Alchemists.  A mythical race of Gargoyle’s watches over the city, but remains aloof and uninvolved in politics.  So far it is an interesting, if not stellar, story.  And it’s both short and a quick read.  I’m enjoying it, but there’s nothing really revolutionary for the steampunk genre to be found here.  It’s more of a card-carrying, law abiding citizen of steampunk-ville.  But still, worth a look if you like that genre.

China Mieville Going Downhill (in my opinion)

So, I just finished China Mieville’s much hyped Iron Council.  Ehhh.  He has such good ideas, such rich and vivid visuals and generally an intriguing setting – New Crobuzon has its ups and downs.  But, dammit, I just didn’t care two hoots for ANY of the characters in Iron Council.  The story flipped around too much and none of the characters were anything more that two dimensional, I felt.  Just when you would start to get a feel for a character, he would switch to the other setting he was writing about.  Just when you felt like a character was developing some depth, he would stop talking about them. It was a big tease, really.  I found myself in the last thirty pages or so feeling like I really couldn’t care less if I finished it or not.  I did, because I respect the craft, but I didn’t care about it.  Just so damn disappointing.  He’s suppossed to be good, but I haven’t loved any of his books.  Perdido Street Station was great until the cheap deus-ex-machina ending.  The Scar would have been a great idea, if Neal Stephenson hadn’t already written the same book with Snow Crash.  And Iron Council, well, is he getting lazy, riding the coattails of his own success?  I really want to care about the characters I read, but Cutter, Judah Low, Ann-Hari, Ori, Toro?  They were all just…ehhhh.

The one line of the book that stuck with me was this, and I did think this was a powerful observation:

“You don’t get to chose what you remember.”

Did that make the book worth reading?  No.

And now, I am on to Light by M. Scott Harrison.  Another highly touted book and so far, 167 pages into it, I already care about the characters more than I did in Iron Council.  The story hasn’t developed quite yet, but its coming.