CLASSIFICATION: Set in an alternate history Seattle, sometime around the year 1880, Boneshaker is a steampunk-flavored adventure that incorporates elements of zombie horror, pulp fiction and post-apocalyptic retrofuturism. Think The Wild Wild West meets Fallout (a videogame series) meets George Romero…
FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 416 pages divided over 28 numbered chapters, an Epilogue, and an excerpt from Unlikely Episodes in Western History which serves as the prologue. The book also includes a map and an Author’s Note regarding the historical and geographical liberties taken in the novel. Narration is in the third-person, alternating between Briar Wilkes and her son Ezekiel, with biographer Hale Quarter providing the bookends. Boneshaker is self-contained, but is the first volume in the CLOCKWORK CENTURY series which already has two more books (Clementine and Dreadnought) scheduled for release in 2010. Much more information about the books and setting can be found HERE, including the free short story “Tanglefoot.”
ANALYSIS: Despite owning a number of Cherie Priest’s novels including last year’s Fathom, I’ve never actually read anything by the author until now. Boneshaker immediately intrigued me because I’m a huge fan of steampunk and zombie fiction, but what really hooked me was the prologue — an excerpt from Hale Quarter’s Unlikely Episodes in Western History detailing the “Boneshaker incident.” From there, I fell in love with the concept of a walled-in Seattle full of such dangers like the deadly Blight gas, rotters (living dead), and various communities that found a way to live in the unlivable city. It is in this nightmare that the bulk of the novel takes place.
Plot-wise, Boneshaker is pretty straightforward. 15-year-old Ezekiel Wilkes has grown tired of the animosity he’s had to deal with his entire life because of the deeds committed by a father he never knew, and one day he enters the city hoping to discover evidence of his father’s innocence. Briar, Zeke’s mother, learns of this journey and enters the city as well, hoping to save her son’s life before it’s too late. Along the way, the two encounter a diverse and interesting cast of characters: Alistair Mayhem Osterude, Jeremiah Swakhammer, Miss Angeline, Lucy O’Gunning, and the mysterious Dr. Minnericht who may or may not be the infamous Leviticus Blue. The book also features tons of heart-pounding action (zombie attacks, airship battles, etc), inventive gadgets (the Waterworks, fresh air apparatuses, a mechanical arm, the Doozy Dazer, the Sonic Gusting Gun), one or two surprises, and an ending that mostly wraps up the novel’s most pressing questions, like “what really happened during the Boneshaker incident?”
I didn’t really have any major issues with the book. I thought Zeke was a bit annoying at times, and felt the characterization of some of the secondary players could have been a little bit deeper, but overall the writing was top-notch, led by accessible and skillful prose, crisp dialogue, and cinematic-like pacing. On top of that, the story was a lot of fun, the setting was creative, and I cared about the characters, especially Briar. In short, I immensely enjoyed Boneshaker and can’t wait to read more books in the CLOCKWORK CENTURY series. Cherie Priest, congratulations. You’ve just acquired a new fan.
Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest, is set in your typical steampunk, alternate-history, Civil-War period world, more precisely Seattle. Or actually, what’s left of Seattle after an experimental mining machine seemingly went out of control, tunneling under the city and releasing a strange yellow gas that turned folks into zombies. Cut to a few years later and Briar Wilkes, the widow of the inventor of the machine (whom all assume died in the city) is eking out a hardscrabble life on the “Outskirts” with her son Ezekiel, though it’s tough thanks to the ignominy of their husband/father. Ezekiel, in an attempt to clear his father’s name, decides to enter the now-walled-off city, braving the zombies to try and clear his father’s name. Briar, showing her maternal instinct, goes in to rescue him. And unexpected adventures occur.
The plot is fast-paced but not breakneck. Priest shows a good sense of timing, intermingling action scenes (zombie attacks and the like) with quieter, slower scenes (Briar explaining to a newly-met group why she’s there and nearly breaking down as she does so). The story never bogs down and carries you along quickly to the end.
Briar is a sympathetic character throughout and holds the reader’s interest through both her strong and weak moments. Ezekiel is less successful, though part of that may simply be due to his realistic portrayal as an adolescent boy with all the attendant annoying traits. The secondary characters vary in richness and interest. The airship captains as a whole are a pretty compelling and unique group, and Lucy, the owner of a bar inside Seattle, matches Briar’s strength (her mechanical arm doesn’t hurt her interest either). Other characters are mostly solid, though perhaps the one who should have been the most rich for exploration — the one who may or may not be Briar’s inventor husband — I actually found the least interesting and most one-dimensional. As that gets us into the end of the book and possible spoilers, though, I won’t say anything else about it.
While it’s a very narrowly focused story in terms of plot and setting, Priest drops in enough small details of the larger world outside to give a sense of its fullness and pique our interest enough so that we want to hear more. Luckily, she has two other books set in the same world (the books stand on their own, however) and based on my enjoyment of Boneshaker, I’ll be picking up the next soon. Recommended.
Zombies aren’t my favorite thing, but I did enjoy the story and the non-zombie characters in Boneshaker. Interesting setting — a mist-filled walled-off portion of Seattle.
The Clockwork Century — (2009-2013) These are stand-alones set in the same world with some overlapping characters. From Priest’s website: [The Clockwork Century is] an alternate-history world setting created by Cherie Priest. Here, it is 1880 (or thereabouts). The Civil War is still underway, drawn out by English interference, a different transportation infrastructure, and a powerful Republic of Texas that discovered oil at Spindletop some fifty years sooner than real life allowed. The competition of war has led to technological progress and horrors unimaginable, and many people have fled the combating states, hoping for an easier life out west. Some of them have found it. Some have found something else.