In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus was Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine born. But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.
Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes. Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenaged boy to support, but she and Ezekiel are managing. Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history. His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.
There have been a number of really good steampunk novels for both adults and younger readers released during 2009, and with so many on the cards for next year I am already christening 2010 as Book Zone’s official “Year of Steampunk”. The genre has been around for years, but it seems that it is only in the last twelve months that it has hit the Young Adult and middle-grade market with a vengeance. In my opinion Boneshaker by Cherie Priest ranks amongst the very best books in this genre; it is certainly the best adult steampunk book I have read this year.
One of the reasons I like this book so much is that it delivers a fresh take on the steampunk genre. Traditionally, steampunk stories have been set in Victorian England, or at the very least have been heavily rooted in some form of alternate British Empire. Not Boneshaker - this book is set in a thoroughly depressing, late 19th Century alternate Seattle, not yet part of a United States where the civil war is still being waged. All the other favourite steampunk elements are present though: airships (not sleek passenger or military craft – these are cobbled together from the scrap of other ships and piloted by smugglers and sky-pirates); steam powered air pumps; mad inventors; goggles; brass and wooden gadgets and weapons a plenty; the list goes on and on. Add flesh-eating zombies (are there any other kind?), a walled-off city, and a zombie-fying gas leaking from the depths of the earth and you have one hell of a premise for a novel.
At the beginning of the book Cherie Priest very cleverly sets the scene for her alternative history by providing the reader with a prologue in the form of an excerpt from a book written by a journalist who makes a brief (and easily forgotten) cameo appearance at the beginning and end of the story. In this prologue we are informed that some years prior to our story a machine (the Boneshaker of the book’s title) designed to mine gold from the frozen lands of the North ran amok through downtown Seattle, wrecking this part of the city. In the trail of destruction left by the Boneshaker a gas is released from the bowels of the earth that turned people to zombies (‘rotters’ as they are known in the story). The ruined portion of the city and its ‘rotters’ have since been walled-up, with most of Seattle’s remaining population living a pretty grim existence in the bleak and depressing "Outskirts."
Briar Wilkes is the wife of the Boneshaker’s creator, the man blamed for all the destruction suffered by Seattle. In the fifteen or so years since the devastation she has shielded her son Zeke from the truth behind his father’s actions, as well as those of his grandfather, another person deeply entrenched in the grim folklore of post-disaster Seattle. Like any teenager thrown into this sort of situation, Zeke has become an angry and inquisitive young man and so sets out on a quest into the walled-off city in an attempt to clear the names of both his father and grandfather. Of course, once Briar discovers this she sets out on her own adventure – a rescue mission! With two main characters the story then alternates between Zeke’s and Briars different adventures through the polluted, zombie infested city.
It is once Briar and Zeke are within the walled-off city that the story really comes alive. Ms Priest has an obvious talent for descriptive writing, and her detailed and vivid portrait of the post-apocalypse city may stay with you for a long time after you have finished this book (and if you are very unlucky, it may even seep into your darkest dreams). This would be a very bleak story indeed if it wasn’t for the author’s other massive talent – creating warm and believable secondary characters that the reader can identify and empathise with. And there are so many of them: Lucy, the barmaid who has lost both of her arms and had one of them replaced with a mechanical marvel; Cly, the towering owner of the airship that literally drops Briar off inside the city walls; Jeremiah Swakhammer, the steampunk version of a knight in (not so) shining armour; and the evil Minnericht, a truly creepy and twisted human being who is hell-bent on controlling Briar, Zeke and the rest of the walled city. It is all of these characters that make this book such a great read.
Boneshaker was written for the adult market, but there is little in it that makes it unsuitable for more advanced Young Adult readers. Yes, there is quite a high level of violence and horror, but no worse than you would find in a Darren Shan novel or the recently published The Monstrumologist. Once you get past the relatively slow opening chapters, the fast pace of the narrative with its memorable battle scenes and snappy, clever dialogue will keep you hooked and not wanting to put the book down, and once you have finished it you will certainly be left wanting more – it is a good job that Ms Priest has a second novel in the series entitled Dreadnought coming in 2010 (pulished by Tor) and, I believe, another story entitled Clementine at some point in the not-too-distant future as well. For more information about Cherie Priest's re-imagined 19th Century United states visit her blog here.