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BOOK REVIEW: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

REVIEW SUMMARY: Every bit as good as a steampunk/zombie mash-up should be…and then some.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Briar Wilkes tries to find her son, Zeke, who enters the walled up, zombie-ridden city of Seattle to clear his father’s name.

PROS: Riveting adventure story; great characters; perfectly captures the flavors of the steampunk and zombie subgenres.
CONS: Some story elements might seem clichéd, but that’s very small potatoes next to the entertainment value this book provides.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a wonderful setting that demands more stories. I can’t wait.

Genre mash-ups are one of the favorite pastimes of the blogosphere. (“Hey, wouldn’t a steampunk zombie story be cool?”) The reality is that off-the-cuff statements like that are not necessarily easy to pull off. Writers still have to worry about storytelling, characterizations, drama, and a handful more elements that make up good fiction — and all towards the goal of producing something that has to be entertaining at the same time. It’s no small feat, to be sure. But damn, Cherie Priest makes it look easy with her latest novel, Boneshaker.

The story stems from a series of events involving the Russian quest for gold during the American Civil War. Seattle inventor Leviticus Blue is commissioned to create a machine that will drill for gold through Alaskan ice. While testing his machine (dubbed the Boneshaker) something goes seriously wrong: Seattle is destroyed as the Boneshaker carves out the ground underneath the city. Worse still, the digging has also unleashed a slow-spreading gas that begins to turn people into zombies. A wall is thus erected around the city to keep the heavy “Blight” gas inside while the survivors move to the safer Outskirts. Year’s later, Briar Wilkes (Blue’s widow), who makes a meager living by working in a factory, is still ostracized by society. Her son, Zeke, not content with the family’s status and his tarnished family name, sets out to rectify the situation by clearing his father of any wrongdoing – and that means a trip back into the city, back into the Blight, and into the land of the undead.

That’s a great hook; a steampunk/zombie mash-up is instantly appealing. The question is whether it can last the length of a novel. In short: absolutely. Boneshaker simply pulls you in and doesn’t let go.

Here’s why:

  • Boneshaker is all about the romance of science fictional and the flavor inherent in the genres it smashes together:
    • It’s an adventure story that moves quickly, puts the heroes in mortal danger, and makes the reader eager to see what happens next.
    • It’s a steampunk adventure, set in the 19th century during the Civil War (although that’s happening elsewhere). Noted here is that the author bends history a bit, but as she says in the afterward, that’s the point of steampunk, isn’t it?
    • It’s a zombie story as evidenced by the “rotters” that inhabit the walled-in city of Seattle. Strictly speaking, this story element serves largely as another piece of world building, but it definitely holds up more than its fair share of nail-biting action.
  • The author simultaneously accomplishes admirable feats with Boneshaker:
    • She incorporates the genre staples to a significant degree; there’s not just an airship scene, there are several airships scenes, and they’re all as good as you’d hope they’d be.
    • She pays superb attention to detail — for example, having the characters constantly worry about wearing their gas masks; or the initial story background chapter — without pushing the prose into fluff.
    • There’s excellent world building. One of the best examples is the underground society that emerges from the disaster.
  • It’s got strong characters
    • Briar Wilkes is a strong and determined female character. Naturally, she tries to find Zeke and follows him into the city. The scene in which she prepares to do so (collecting gas mask and weapon) is reminiscent of Ripley in Aliens. Briar isn’t messing around.
    • Fifteen year-old Zeke is portrayed as a young, independent go-getter. No teen angst here, folks. Zeke Wilkes willingly makes the dangerous trek into the walled city of Seattle, home to the Blight that turns people into the walking dead. Zombies, I say!
  • It’s got a strong supporting cast:
    • Lucy O’Gunning – the resilient subterranean barkeep with a heart of gold and one (very) good arm.
    • Dr. Minnericht – the strict and mysterious leader of the new underground community that evolved after the loss of the city above.
    • Jeremiah Swakhammer – a mercenary who knows how to get around the Blight-infested city and dark underground tunnels.
    • Captin Cly – who travels by airship into and out of the city.
    • Angeline – A revered member of the underground society.
  • The family’s history incorporates drama that not only plays the “Whatever happened to…?” card, but ups the ante by spinning it around and around until you don’t know which way it’ll go. And you’ll love the way it goes.

(For those looking for even more information, the book’s website, Clockwork Century, is brimming with additional supplemental information and flavor for Boneshaker.)

This is a wonderful setting that demands more stories. I can’t wait.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

4 Comments on BOOK REVIEW: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

  1. I’m there for it, John.  I even blogged about the Clockwork Century website

    for the Second Life Primgraph folks (who like all things Steampunk).  I suspect

    when I get my hands on this, I’ll review it there for them…



  2. Why does every book that I think I could do without get a 5-star review? It’s like you know…

  3. FABULOUS. Can’t wait to read this book.

  4. Hi there from Germany!

    Read the book in the last week.
    Either I’m the only one or it just feels like it. My rating: average!

    Those great reviews made me buy this steampunk story. The last one I read was the Bas-Lag-series by China Miéville. Oh dear, he is so way ahead of this fast paced effort by Cherie Priest that I feel a bit disappointed. I thought to get equal quality and innovation there. Boneshaker gathered awards or at least nominations and I still have the feeling that I read an average book with a story thousand times heard, just the setting was different.
    The ideas are ok, rotters and steampunk (airships, weapons, light) and a city in a city with a mysterious “leader” and a mother/son-relationship-character-developement which some might find interesting. Not me.
    It was just no surprise at all what happened. Even not the Minnericht mystery. The Blight gas itself also was not explained to my satisfaction. It sounded a bit sloppy. I know this was not the main point of the story which surely was the mother-son-relationship and there love/care for each other, it was the fact that in every evil place you’ll find someone who is willing to help you. There is no depressive atmosphere/world/lifeform which cannot be overcome.

    It was all too easy. Good for a movie to be made out of it, but not good enough for a fastidious reader.

    It’s not bad at all. So don’t be worried that I still rate the book with a 7 out of 10. But it could have been way better. Bestowed potential.

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