Boneshaker BY Cherie Priest
If pressed, I have to admit that had it not been for a Hugo Award nomination, I probably would not have read Cherie Priest’s novel, Boneshaker. It’s not that the book didn’t look interesting – after all, it is definitely of the steampunk subgenre and what’s not to love about all the potential there? But it also involves zombies, and I can’t deny that zombie literature isn’t my favorite. I’m glad, though, that I didn’t let this prejudice deter me, because then I would have indeed missed out on a true gem. And the zombie factor (or “rotters”, as they are known in Boneshaker) is a well integrated part of this fascinating and extremely well recounted tale of a son’s rebellion and a mother’s redemption.
Boneshaker takes place in alternate reality frontier Seattle. Gold has been found in the Pacific Northwest and the Klondike rush is in full swing, even as the Civil War rages on in the East. Life is gritty, but full of the elusive promise of untold wealth. Then on January 2, 1863, catastrophe strikes. This is the day that Dr. Levitius Blue, scientist, inventor and engineer extraordinaire, unleashes the Incredible Bone Shaking Drill Engine (aka “Boneshaker”). Meant to be a massive and powerful tool in extracting gold from beneath the frozen turf of Alaska, its maiden rogue run bores underneath downtown Seattle wreaking havoc as buildings crumble, streets sink and citizens are horribly injured or killed. Also released in the chaos is a mysterious, yellowish gas billowing from the depths of the opened earth that proves even more deadly than the cave-ins and falling buildings. Anyone who breaths in or is even touched by “the blight” either dies, or becomes a rotter, soulless and ever hungry for the flesh and blood of the living.
Forward 16 years. Seattle endures, but it is a much different city than before. A huge wall has been erected around the contaminated city blocks that contain the heavy Blight, as well as the roaming bands of rotters. The Blight has contaminated the water supply, but a water treatment plant, employing hundreds of workers from “the Outskirts”, has developed a process for removing the contamination. The leftover resin from the distillation process has its uses as well, including “lemon sap”, a highly addictive illegal drug that almost always proves chronic to the user.
Leviticus Blue was never seen after that fateful January night, but his young widow, Briar Blue (now known as Briar Wilkes, retaining her maiden name in an effort to put the past behind her) remains, barely scraping by while working at the treatment plant and living with the mantle of the widow of the man who brought the Blight – but also tolerated as the granddaughter of a local hero. Her son, Ezekiel, was born after the rampage of the Boneshaker, and never knew his father or grandfather.
Against this backdrop, the story develops. Briar ekes out a dreary living and dreams of moving out East once the war is over, where the name “Blue” would not garner such resentment. She is a virtual stranger to her son, hoping that ignoring their past will isolate him from its effects. However, this lack of openness only allows Zeke to resent his mother and romanticize about his dead father, and gives rise to his belief that the inventor was merely a pawn who was forced into premature action by wealthy and powerful Russian backers demanding evidence of Boneshaker’s prowess. Spurred by an episode with a visiting historian and a particularly harsh argument with his mother, Zeke decides to prove his father’s innocence by slipping into the walled city and retrieving a fabled ledger that supposedly documents Russian pressure to falsify tests and move the project forward – a secret ledger hidden in the old Blue household nestled deep in the walled city of Blight and rotters.
Once Briar realizes Zeke’s plans, she takes off after him, waiting for him to return by the underground tunnel that is the only entrance to the barricaded city. But an earthquake caves in the tunnel, and Briar, knowing her son is inside and determined to make things right between them, seeks another way across the walls regardless of the dangers that await – even if this means engaging the services of a mercenary smuggling crew of a pirated dirigible.
What both Zeke and Briar find in the city during their separate journeys defies all sense and sensibility, with the discovery of a network of hidden and suspicious societies who operate within the walls aided by sealed enclaves and cobbled together mechanics that draw safe air from above, massive bellows worked by itinerate Chinese settlers, and ingenious machines that range from deep sea-like armor to fantastical but unreliable weapons and mechanical limbs, most of which come from the brilliant yet unstable mind of the mysterious genius known as Dr. Minnericht. It quickly becomes apparent that murderous gasses and marauding rotters are not the only threats in this dangerous city – knowing who to trust may prove to be the most desperate challenge of all.
What really struck me about Boneshaker, though, was how human the writing was, and how strong the characters became. Rather than being awash in the dross and gleam of the mechanical elements or caught up in the heart pounding encounters with the mindless, relentless rotters and their ilk, the story really did spin on Briar’s steely resolve, and to a lesser degree Zeke’s idealistic quest. Add to it a cadre of supporting characters that are brilliantly realized and who make the action feel real and urgent, and a writing style that reminds us that under all the horror and paranoia are “real” people with dreams and desires, and you have an amazing mix of adventure, dread and involvement in the outcome of each twist and turn in the plot. At the heart of Ms. Priest’s story is always the humanness of her characters (deftly set against the unreal), brought out by touching prose, stark enough to maintain the mood but elegant enough to keep the reader entranced.