Quite a lot has been said about the Hugo nominated Boneshaker, which got my interest piqued especially after the io9 review many moons ago. Steampunk definitely tickles my interest bone (which is right next to my bad-metaphors bone) and so I’d bought the book from Amazon many months back, and proceeded to let it ferment and fester unread until I finally had the time to start on the book. Now that the dust has settled, how did the book do when read by someone who’s developed the inability to sit down for long periods and read a book? Read on to find out!
Before I begin with the review proper I’ll have to add that reading a novel has sadly almost become an annual situation. Before you raise your pitchforks and run me out of here, I’d also like to say that given my short attention span these days, it takes a lot to hold my attention especially at novel length, so it takes a really good book and a bit of effort on my part to get it all working. So with that, let’s get cracking.
In Boneshaker, Cherie Priest paints a picture of 1879 Seattle viewed through steampunk goggles. For some reason I kept imagining it in San Francisco, which I could picture in my head having been there twice and so the slopes and hills and streets of Seattle got transformed to those in San Francisco, which rather helped in me imagining the desperate flight of the characters. Priest did mention, at the end of the book the liberties she took with history just so that the story could work, but you wouldn’t know she did that if you only read comments on posts – who focus on the historical inaccuracies. At any rate, Seattle has been divided into 2 zones, the old city, which has been sealed up behind a tall wall, and the outskirts, where people eke out a depressing existence. These people live under the shadow of the blight, a yellow gas that has been leaking out of a vent inside the old city since the accident which was caused by the titular boneshaker. A contest funded by the Russian to create a machine to drill through ice for gold resulted in the creation of the boneshaker by Leviticus Blue, a scientist quite akin to Nikolai Tesla (just for kicks, I would cast David Bowie as Blue). One day, the boneshaker went rogue, hitting a vein which unleashed the blight which caused people to appear necrotic before becoming zombies, or as they say in Seattle, rotters. People evacuate the city, errecting a wall, keeping the gas and the rotters in and the people safely out.
So it’s a world where steampunk marries the flavour-of-a-few-months-now zombies, and I would say it works beautifully. As a testament to Priest’s world creation, I was totally be immersed in a world where I was constantly wondering what was going in other parts of the world, in London, on even on the east coast. There are hints sprinkled throughout, throwaway comments by various characters that really begin to flesh up this world. And what flavourful characters they are. The story follows the paths of 2 characters, Briar Wilkes and Ezekiel (Zeke) Wilkes, mother (and widow to Blue) and son as they stumble their way into the old city, Zeke trying to prove his father was innocent, and Briar trying to get Zeke out of there safely. The path into the city begins with their meeting of various folk that inhabit the world of boneshaker, and each of them come with certain steampunk accoutrements that really flesh them out (perfect for the rotters I guess). The main antagonist is Dr Minnericht, who may or may not turn out to be Leviticus Blue himself… and turns out to be the biggest mystery of the story. I guess the only complaint I could give about the characters is that at first one of them is really tall, but next thing you know, another one of them towers over the rest too, and so on and so forth. For some reason the blight… selectively killed smaller men first?
And then there’s all that steampunk stuff, from airships to huge billowing towers connected to bellows to submachine guns and huge hulking armours and… the list goes on. Even the simple task of wear masks to keep the blight out, and having filters in them you have to change – no detail seems left covered. On hindsight one realises that they don’t really change their filters as often as I expected, but even then wearing that mask and seeing an occluded world view – the descriptions of being in a mask are asphyxiating and claustrophobic especially when you realise the rotters are rapidly encroaching.
Sadly, not all of it is perfect, especially the ending. For all the high adventure and high concept, the way the book end feels a little too pat. While the mystery of Dr Minnericht was constantly teased to great effect, somehow when it all ended it felt like a let down, and it felt as if Briar’s constantly attempted to dodge the question of Minnericht identity just so that the readers would be kept guessing, not to mention Zeke himself kept in the dark for what didn’t feel like a satisfying reason in the end.
But beyond the zombie and steampunk elements, Boneshaker, at its very core, is a story about family, about redemption and about exoneration. Perhaps it would be too harsh to say the book failed because of its ending, because Priest has more than redeemed herself with the very world she conjured up and it is this world creation magic and a very strong cast of characters that would lead me to wholly recommend this book.
Also, did you know that boneshakers are also a name for the precursors to the penny farthing? I can imagine Leviticus riding a little bicycle, knocking into a huge rock wall thus causing a huge rift. I’m picturing something right out of Monty Python, with tiny top hats and all.