Thoughts on Cherie Priest's Boneshaker

Steampunk intrigues me.  I enjoy imagining a speculative world built upon steam-powered technology instead of the electrical technology we take for granted today.  I like the chunky, mechanical look of the equipment and the Victorian-inspired attire with its myriad straps and buckles.  I have always appreciated the genre from afar though, having never read, watched or listened to any Steampunk-related media, so Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is my participatory introduction to this world of clockwork mystique.

We are oft cautioned not to judge a book by its cover, but that should not stop us from appreciating an exceptional one.  Jon Foster’s illustration on the 2009 TOR paperback edition is attractive and succeeded in drawing my eye to it on the bookshop shelf in the midst of hundreds of others.  We see an extreme close-up of a young woman’s face as she gazes skyward, herself colored with a muted gray palette while her bulky metal goggles are colored gold and reflect the giant, wire-frame zeppelin that has drawn her eye just as it has ours.  Is she looking at the zeppelin in excited anticipation or is it a threat to her?  The goggles hide her eyes so we don’t know.  I don’t often lose time staring at cover illustrations, but this one captures my imagination completely.

Even the color of the text in the book was an interesting artistic choice.  Instead of the standard black print, the text is sepia.  I don’t recall ever seeing a book printed in anything other than black.  It is a neat choice and fits the genre and time period of the book well since it brings to mind sepia photographs from the late nineteenth century.

Boneshaker is not merely a Steampunk novel though as it also includes zombies, or “rotters” in the parlance of the denizens of this cursed version of nineteenth century Seattle.  While this is my first experience with the Steampunk genre, I am an unabashed appreciator of zombie fiction.  Priest’s alternate history version of Civil War-era Seattle has been walled in to protect those outside from The Blight, a noxious yellow gas that corrodes material and turns those who breathe it into groaning, shambling cannibal terrors.  This awful gas infecting the city is the result of a pre-narrative accident, the test of a drilling machine gone awry.  The conductor of the test, the brilliant inventor Leviticus Blue, supposedly perished in the accident but questions remain.  Sixteen years later, Ezekiel Wilkes, the teenaged son of Blue and his widow Briar Wilkes, decides he wants to learn the truth and sneaks into the walled-off part of the city seeking answers.  When Briar learns what her son has done, she goes in after him.  What follows is a fun adventure tale as mother searches for son in a dead and deadly city.

Boneshaker is full of great atmosphere.  Priest does a wonderful job of describing how the thick-as-pudding blight gas has corrupted and corroded the buildings inside The Wall, how the sun never really seems to provide enough light, how the rotters’ moans and groans unsettle one’s nerves.  It is an oppressive setting and it effectively filled me with dread.  Priest takes her time establishing the setting, peppering in action scenes with character-developing walk’n’talk scenes.  Chapters switch between Zeke’s activities and those of his mother and occasionally I had difficulty reconciling when one person’s scenes took place in relation to the other’s scenes.  Ultimately, it all works out but I felt like I spent too much time trying to figure out if I was reading simultaneous or subsequent action.  The pace of the story is generally slow until the exciting and satisfying conclusion.

While Ezekiel and Briar are sympathetic characters, they frustrated me.  I found Ezekiel to be obnoxious, foolish, and smart-mouthed, all of which I was as a 15-year-old boy so I suppose Priest wrote him quite accurately, but I didn’t like myself when I was fifteen either.  I forgive Briar for her occasional brash and rude demeanor due to the stress she was under, but her behavior in some situations still baffled me as she acted in the complete opposite manner I would have expected.  Still, she is a strong woman and not a damsel in distress so for that, I commend Cherie Priest.  As in her debut novel, Four and Twenty Blackbirds (which I reviewed here ), Boneshaker is full of strong female characters.  There are too many stories in all media wherein the women are either window dressing or quest rewards.  Cherie Priest’s heroines are a nice change of pace.

The supporting cast interested me much more than the two protagonists and while we do learn a bit about characters like Lucy and Angeline, I wanted to know so much more about the backstories of Swakhammer and the zeppelin crew.  A novel detailing the origin story of the antagonist would be particularly interesting.

As a first experience with the Steampunk genre, Boneshaker did not disappoint.  This is the second Cherie Priest novel I have read and I enjoyed both of them so I think I can safely put her on my author watch list.