Boneshaker is my first encounter with Cherie Priest's writing. I saw an online giveaway for this book a while ago and the description intrigued me enough to enter. Didn't win of course, but the title stuck with me and last week I decided to buy a copy. It's also something of an introduction into steampunk subgenre for me, All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear is just about the only novel I have read that could be considered steampunk. Boneshaker is the first of a series of books Priest plans to write in an alternate history setting called the Clockwork Century (the series has its own website). Although the novel leaned on the setting a little too much at some points, I thought it was a very interesting read. I absolutely am going to have to get better acquainted with this subgenre in general and Priest's writing in particular.
In an alternate Seatle in 1863, an experiment with a revolutionary piece of mining equipment known as the Boneshaker goes horribly wrong. The inventor, Dr. Blue, manages to wreck much of the city centre in one destructive run. Not only does he totally destroy the town, he also releases a toxic gas, leaving the city uninhabitable. Those exposed to this blight turn into ravenous walking corpses, haunting to city in search of flesh. To protect themselves from the danger, the survivors erect a wall to close off the contaminated area. Many leave, but those who choose to remain close to the wall build a new city, known as the Outskirts.
Some sixteen years later Dr. Blue's widow, Briar Wilkes is trying to make end meet and provide for her son Zeke. As the wife of the man who destroyed the city, life is hard for Briar and her son. To make matters worse, Briar's father is considered a criminal by many of the city's inhabitants for releasing a number of prisoners before the blight could get to them. He died in the process and has turned into something of a hero for the petty criminals in town. Having grown up without knowing either of the two men who, to a large extend, have determined his life, Zeke is determined to find out more about them. His mother is not keen to discuss the matter and that leaves Zeke with only one option, go over the wall and explore the city for himself.
The more traditional approach to creating an alternate history is to pick a point of divergence. A single important event going another way that it has in history as we know it. Priest rearranges history of a much larger scale in this novel. The story is set around 1880 but the civil war is still raging in the east. Stonewall Jackson managed not to get himself killed and is directing the confederate forces with superior skill. Great Britain has gotten involved in the conflict and has broken the union blockade (I must admit that one seemed very unlikely to me but I found out it was considered at one point) and Texas has grown rich on oil, which has been discovered decades earlies. Airships are widely used for transportation and military purposes, (Priest slips once by calling them Zeppelins, the man they are named after did not really get going on this project until the 1890s) and a large number of exotic, often steam powered machines (including the Boneshaker) are in mentioned in the book. She also moves the Klondike gold rush back a couple of decades to explain the much larger population of Seattle in her alternate world. In short, there's quite a bit of remodelling. Priest does not explore the what if question so much as fit the setting to the need of the story.
The story itself is not all that complicated. Briar goes in search of Zeke and both have to overcome a number of obstacles to stay alive. There are some twists and turns in the plot of course, but Priest does not complicate things with multiple plot lines or large casts. In fact, early on in the book I had my doubts if there was enough story to keep the novel going for four hundred pages. It turned out there was plenty. The setting is obviously quite important to this book but the character of Brair is what really carries the story. Priest manages to find a good mix of emotions for a woman in Briar's position. Determination, guilt, desperation and courage, Briar has it all and combined with the unanswered questions about her past, it makes her into a great character.
The good characterization doesn't stop there though, Briar is surrounded by a number of very interesting secondary characters. Down town Seattle is not as deserted as you might think. It is home to an assortment of strange people, keeping themselves alive by applying a strange mix of technologies. Lucy, Miss Angeline and the mysteries Dr. Minnericht appealed to me in particular. Their world is a dark one indeed but Priest manages to make clear why each of them is willing to accept the conditions inside the wall.
Boneshaker is a great mix of steampunk, alternate history and ..well.. zombies. I must admit I don't usually go for the monster tales but their presence does create and acute sense of danger in the story that would be hard to match otherwise. The author exceeded my expectations in weaving all these elements into an exciting novel. At first I though the plot a little light but in the last couple of chapters Priest managed to make up for that. This book turned out to be a very good read, one of the best I have read this year. I'm looking forward to finding out what other stories she has in store for us in the Clockwork Century.
Author: Cherie Priest
First published: 2009