LitStack’s Featured Author for September is the darling of Steampunk and the prolific Locus award-winning author, Cherie Priest. Over the next month, we will proudly feature reviews in Priest’s Clockwork Century series and a one-on-one interview with Priest, all leading up to the September 27th release of Ganymede, the latest in the series .
Thanks to Tor and to Ms. Priest for their support and to you, LitStackers, we hope you’ll pick up these amazing books!
Names have power. We hid behind them. We protect them. We curse or bless them. We obscure ours in anonymity on the Internet and teach our children to keep theirs concealed. It’s a practice well observed, a necessity, to some, that safeguards perception.
Like the reality of Name Power, sometimes fiction examines the practice. Neil Gaiman is the master of Name Power fiction— Sandman, The Books of Magic and American Gods all delve into the magical import of the name. Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind concerns utilizing Name Power to control and manipulate. The practice of Name Power is further explored in the first book of Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, the 2010 Locus Award winner, Boneshaker.
Perhaps an examination of Name Power was not wholly intended by Priest. Perhaps she simply wanted to tell the story of her protagonist, Briar Wilkes, and the search for her son in the zombie-infested remnants of Seattle. Nevertheless, Name Power is an essential theme in the book and one that helps to define the motivations and desires of many of the central characters.
Wilkes hides behind a name of her own making. She refuses to be reminded of her father, certain that his questionable behavior during the disaster that released the Blight—a gas that transformed Seattle’s citizens into undead cannibals—did nothing but cast a heavy shadow she had no hope of escaping. It was the winter of 1863 then and the rumors of “gold nuggets” in The Klondike enticed miners and wealth seekers, including Russian capitalists. Offering a 100,000 ruble prize to the “the inventor who could produce or propose a machine that could mine through the ice in search of gold,” the Russians secured their machine and it was Wilke’s husband, Leviticus Blue, and his Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine that won the prize. But when the Boneshaker was freed, unexpectedly, the Blight was released and her father, Maynard Wilkes, acting out of pity, rescued frantic prisoners fearing certain death from their cells that would have become their crypts. It was a sin Seattle never forgave Maynard or Briar for.
It’s both the Wilkes and Blue names that Briar tries to avoid, preferring that both lay hidden in the past. Neither name is acceptable and it is the legacies and conflicting opinions of both, that set Wilkes on her journey beyond the mammoth wall erected to protect residents from the Blight-infected and keep the Blight itself contained.
Zeke, Briar’s son, is tired of hiding his name. He’s tired of seeing his mother endure the ridicule of her fellow factory workers because she had the nerve to marry the destroyer of Seattle. He’s tired of living in the shadow of his grandfather’s legend and his father’s shame. Guarded with only a lantern, fierce nerve and a face that invokes his grandfather, Zeke steps beyond the wall and into a world that keeps the past hidden, eager to unravel its secrets.
Briar’s and Zeke’s journeys parallel one another. Zeke finds a drifter with allegiance only to the yellow sap drug created from the Blight. Briar dons her father’s clothes (and badge) and hopes the resurrection of his memory will protect her from those living beyond the wall.
Zeke is given over to first, the pirates who brought his mother past the wall, and then to Dr. Minnericht, who rules the Seattle underground with technological weaponry and phantom compassion. Briar meets a band of rebels sympathetic to her father and eager to unmask Minnericht’s true identity and crumble his tight-fist hold on the beyond-the-wall inhabitants.
Minnericht also relies on Name Power to exist in a world of presumption and question. He is masked, he is clever and he insinuates being the long missing Leviticus Blue. Briar’s arrival can offer either confirmation or denial. To Minnericht, she may be the only person who can substantiate his identity as Seattle’s great destroyer or shatter the mystique he has so carefully designed.
Priest beautifully meshes an informed knowledge of scientific mechanisms and machinery and the fascination of believable steampunk tropes to create a world that coexists with the potential of what might have been, if nightmares were made real. Further to the adage of Name Power is the one Priest has created for herself. Boneshaker made the industry pay attention to what they called “an overnight success,” never mind the slow climb she’d begun nearly a decade before with scores of other well-written books. But Boneshaker did its part to prove Priest worthy of the “Queen of Steampunk” crown. It proved, true, that names do indeed have power inasmuch as words have meaning. It shaped the foundation of a series that weaves in and out of the lives of those affected by disaster, cornered by war, by industry elevated from a mythical past.
Through her journey, Briar Wilkes fashioned a new name, created a family among the band of misfit survivors striving for only opportunity to overcome. Zeke Blue resurrected the past and finally unraveled the truth. Minnericht’s past caught up with him, destroying the illusion of his coattail-riding existence. Names formed them, crafted for each character a meaning and mode that either destroyed lives or saw their renewal. It is the power of the name and wonderment or horror they evoked that laid the groundwork for a glimpse into an alternate history, one defined by real names, real people and the legacies they left behind.