The quick and dirty:
Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Long, but smooth (416 pages)
Publication: September 29, 2009
Premise: Fifteen years ago, the scientist Leviticus Blue destroyed downtown Seattle with his digging machine. The hole released Blight gas, which kills some people and turns other into rotters, zombies who run in packs around the city. Today the year is 1880, and the Widow Blue is struggling to raise her son Ezekiel in the shadow of the walled-off ruins of Seattle. Zeke goes into the city in an attempt to clear his father's name, but his plan to be in and out by sunset doesn't go as planned.
Warnings: quite a bit of gore with the rotters
Recommendation: Despite some slow spots, Boneshaker provides a fresh spin on steampunk, combining the best of the quirky technology with the building horror of a zombie movie and echoes of a dusty Code of the West. Give this one a try, especially if you can find it on sale or at your library.
What makes this one a fun change of pace:
The story opens with a short alternate history sequence explaining that the Russians found gold in the Klondike and started a digging machine contest to see if they could get to the gold under the ice. Leviticus Blue made a device that could do the job, but he tested it too soon and ended up destroying downtown Seattle. The resulting fissure leaks Blight gas, a foul yellow substance that kills people or turns them into rotters (effectively zombies) in large enough amounts. In smaller doses, it only causes minor burns and creates a foulness in the air, so Seattle's former residents built a wall around the city and retreated to a new town called the Outskirts. Priest explains things in enough detail to give the reader a general idea of what's going on, but doesn't launch into a long exposition sequence; those are all too common in steampunk and alternate history, but she instead chooses to scatter details throughout the story and reveal them as they become relevant.
In this world, the gold rush happened much faster and the Civil War has been going on for over fifteen years; one of the best Confederate generals lost an arm instead of dying, airships are everywhere on both sides, and everyone knows that the end of the bloodshed is still years away. Priest lightly touches on the way the war's influence has spread everywhere without letting it bog the story down. One of the airship captains who gives Briar advice is flying a stolen Confederate States of America airship, and the first person who finds Zeke is a deserter from the Civil War who claims that his injury is from battle instead of from falling down. People who might otherwise consider moving back east to find a better life are nervous about having to enlist or having their homes burned, and the government is too concerned with fighting the world to put serious patrols or relief efforts near the ruins of Seattle. Life up in the Northwest feels stagnant, left on hold; life in this alternate history has a realistically fragile flavor, but also an odd measure of freedom.
The bleakness of life in the Outskirts feels real, especially when Briar Wilkes, formerly the wife of Leviticus Blue, thinks about things like the way she rarely gets home while the sun is still shining after her shifts at the water purification plant. A disaster that destroyed so many lives and created undead predators has done nothing to change human nature. Briar and her son Zeke are shunned for the sins of Ezekiel and for those of Maynard Wilkes, Briar's father. By comparison, Maynard's act of letting petty-crime prisoners out to let them escape from the oncoming Blight gas was nothing, but respectable people still frown on a respectable sheriff doing such a thing and dying as he achieved it. Criminals and outcasts, however, rally around Maynard's memory as a touchstone of fairness in a world that has become more dangerously unfair to them than ever. It would be easy to fall into the trap of making all of these outcasts noble and honorable, following in the Robin Hood mold, but not all of the people in Seattle's ruins care what Maynard did or have any interest in keeping his peace.
Zeke and Briar themselves definitely have their interesting moments, and Zeke almost always sounds like a pitch-perfect teenage boy. He hasn't had the best of childhoods, given what his father did, but he's fortunately come out of it mouthy and curious instead of whiny. It's easy to write teenage characters who fall into the trap of having parental conflict and then end up blindly trusting whoever tell them the opposite of what the parents were last saying, but Zeke questions everything and appreciates that his mother does love him, even if she hides things that he thinks he has a right to know. Going to the other side of the wall may be stupid, but he creates a fairly clear plan for getting in and out safely and adapts well on the fly when that plan is destroyed. Briar has much less of a plan, but she doesn't hesitate for a moment when Zeke hasn't gotten back when his friend had expected and the most likely way out of the city is blocked. She hasn't left the Outskirts for years, but she strides straight into an airship field full of smugglers and drug dealers to hunt for a ride into the city.
Once there, she spends a few minutes trying to be stealthy before realizing that rotters have excellent hearing and that her father's shotgun is the solution to quite a few of her problems. The action scenes are tightly paced and fun, always different enough to make things interesting, but the waiting in the dark between fights is even better. They're all trapped underground knowing that they can be eaten alive or infected so that they turn into the rotters they fear, all the while knowing that they could get trapped in the wrong place until the mask filters run out and they start breathing the gas...it's all very tense, and I honestly liked the details about filters and the weight of the masks a lot. People are down here because they don't have anywhere else to go or because they're trying to make a living by distilling the Blight gas into a drug that eventually gives you gangrene, and the slow fear reinforces that slow grind into hopelessness, with more and more heavier-than-air gas poisoning the underground and creeping closer to the top of the two-hundred-foot wall.
After reading a lot of urban fantasy lately, the strong female characters in this book were a glorious change of pace. Briar's strength is all based on persistence and being willing to do whatever she has to to get the job done, not on getting into pissing contests with other characters in order to establish that she would totally win in a fight. She leaves the factory and her normal life to literally dive from and airship into a city that haunts her nightmares, simply not considering that it's possible to just stay outside and hope for the best. Similarly, Angeline's character is tough as nails without starting fights. She wears oversized men's suits simply because she wants to and seems almost surprised that anyone asks why. Her focus is on getting revenge on Minnericht and anyone else who acts up in the city she calls her own, not on presenting any sort of facade; she's Native American and sometimes referred to as "the princess," but she's in her fifties, tough as nails, and absolutely doesn't have the time to be anyone's love interest. One-armed Lucy presents yet another strong figure. She lost both natural arms to Blight and injury years ago and has to rely on Minnericht to keep her mechanical arm working. This leaves her in an awkward position; she helps run the bar that's one of the only safe havens underground, and has a crossbow that she can fasten to the end of the arm, but she has to feed the doctor information and aid or she'll be left helplessly armless and unable to even put on a gas mask for herself. All three of them react as people with vital roles and dark histories, not angsty sex kittens who pick fights for fun, and for that alone I will be checking out more of this author's work, both in this world and other sub-genres.
The red pen:
The minor characters are a mixed bag; as I said above, the women are mostly quite good, but the men seem more lightly sketched, possibly because there are more of them. Jeremiah Swakhammer, the first person Briar meets in the city, had plenty of potential; he's wearing the best anti-gas suit around and has a sonic gun that can put the rotters down for a few minutes. He's also intrigued that Briar is the daughter of Maynard Wilkes, the idol of the underground, but after that he just seems to be around to be useful in fights and occasionally provide bits of plot. Since Minnericht maintains his suit and he's drawn to Briar, he could have been a traitor, a best friend, a conflicted love interest, or any number of things, but after a while he really feels more like window dressing than a person; it's a disappointing waste of potential, and I didn't care much when he was in danger even though Briar evidently seems to. The other most memorable characters are Doctor Minnericht and his right-hand man, Yaozu, but Minnericht seems to crumple a bit too quickly at the end; someone with so much power really could have been drawn with bolder lines, I think. Yaozu has nowhere near enough lines to be really interesting. His second-in-command role just never allows him the scope to do very much, and he doesn't even try to interfere in Minnericht's plans, which is especially disappointing given how small a role the Chinamen (book's term, not mine) have.
Ruined Seattle needs clean air pumped down from over the wall to populate the safe zones, and most of the labor in those air-cleaning plants is provided by Chinamen who were in the city when the Blight hit. The book is set in a time when Chinese women were very much not allowed to immigrate into the country, so these are lonely men sticking around in a miserable city with no families pumping air because....why? They could have left to move somewhere else, sailed back to China, or really just not stayed in the zombie town, which is an objection that I honestly want to apply to everyone in the book. Anyway, there's no mention made of these men being paid for their work, and none of them except Yaozu and Huozin, a budding young scientist who's around for all of three pages, speak English or get names. Writing some realistic amount of racism at the time makes sense; for example, Swakhammer is scared to death of Chinese medicine. On the other hand, this just seems unrealistic; if everyone needs air to live and the Chinamen are providing it, how on earth do they not have quite a bit of economic or political power? How have more of them not learned English to negotiate, or demanded that someone learn Chinese to negotiate? It's another potentially great bit that just seems not very well thought-out, which is a shame given how well some other details flow.
Despite their better moments, which mostly consist of Briar charging into all sorts of situations with a shotgun that she hasn't used in years as Zeke plots his way around adults who are overconfident in their ability to control or manipulate him, both characters fall a little flatter than they should as protagonists. Being inside this city is undeniably tense even before the emotional background of Briar having fled the place in chaos and Zeke desperately looking for a way to redeem the family name, but their tension seems more charted out than truly felt. Their motivations make sense, but it can be hard to feel them when the characters fall into repetitive loops of the same statements made over and over to different people in the same way, like they can't say much beyond their basic mission objective in case anyone forgets. Briar tells everyone that she's looking for her son, using much the same words every time even though the odds that he's dead go up with every hour that she hasn't seen him, and one of the most potentially interesting subplots just sort of....falls flat.
Doctor Minnericht has been helping people stay alive by building them useful technology, such as Lucy's arm, but people also hate and fear him for the way he throws his power around. He does work as a villain, but he gets a lot more foreshadowing and worry than he deserves. People have been passing rumors that he's actually Leviticus Blue, who was supposed to be dead, and that he hides his identity behind a giant gas mask, but Briar simply says whenever she's asked that she's absolutely sure it isn't with no further explanation, no one goes "well, okay, but how are you so sure? Because this place is kind of a mess and you haven't been around," which is the obvious extension of that conversation. Zeke doesn't hear as many of the rumors because he spends more time running around on his own and getting lost, but when he does finally meet Minnericht, we're denied what could have been quite the cool "
Luke, I am your father" scene. It just sort of falls flat, which is really disappointing after how much curiosity and worry has been devoted to the question of who that mask is hiding. Masks, not to put too fine an Eleventh Doctor-esque point on it (I've been having a marathon lately, sorry) are cool. They hide identities, confuse loyalties, turn people into symbols of more than they truly are. If you're going to make a mysterious masked man one of your centerpieces, make the mask's effects so good that it could almost be a character in its own right.
All in all, Boneshaker felt a little slow at time but presented a really interesting take on steampunk. The subgenre tends to center on England and thus on Victorian customs and mores, so seeing steampunk in the Old West makes for a great change of flavor. While this particular story had its weak points, the world is interesting enough that I'll likely go back for seconds when I have the time; the ending of this one hit a note of....not optimism, precisely, but possibility, and that bodes well for the sequels.
Prospects: Ganymede, the third book in the Clockwork Century set, came out last September. The next one, The Inexplicables, comes out this November, so odds are it's an ongoing set. Priest appears to be following a pattern shared by Diana Wynne Jones and Sharon Shinn, among others, by writing each book from the perspective of a secondary character in one of the previous ones, which can be tricky but allows for a much broader look at the world in question from the perspectives of people who experience that world very differently.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~If by some quirk of fate you haven't seen it already, try Firefly. It's not steampunk, but the fusion of science and Old West flavoring shows up rarely enough that these two remind me of each other. Firefly has significantly more humor and less history to it, but the rotters and Reavers, the toughness in the characters, the coats and gloves....the resemblance is very much there.
~The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, plus the sequels. I believe there was at least something zombie-like in the second one, but mostly the two just both represent interesting spins on steampunk.