With its mix of alternate history, zombies, air-pirates, post-apocalyptic adventure, steampunk sensibility, and an undeniable sense of fun, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker delivers a rollicking good time.
This Hugo-nominated novel opens in an 1880 where the American Civil War has been drawn out by English interventionism, allowing for an acceleration in technological progress due to wartime competition. Airships transport goods across the skies. Scientists vie in state-sponsored competitions to invent more and more daring devices and contraptions. To compete in this environment, the Russians commission Leviticus Blue to create a device that will allow them to put their hands on the vast deposits of gold buried beneath the rock and thick ice of the Klondike. Rising to the challenge, Blue creates “Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine” (aka “The Boneshaker”), a massive vehicular drill which manages to completely destroy the financial district of Seattle on its debut outing. There is much speculation as to whether Blue’s disastrous test run was an accident, a mad statement against the establishment, collusion with the Russians, or some other plot. Not only were many lives lost as their homes and businesses literally collapsed upon them, but the drills of the Boneshaker opened up hidden reservoirs of “The Blight”. This deadly gas poisoned much of the population of the young city and later caused their bodies to rise again and seek out the flesh of the survivors. The heavy gas is now contained by two hundred foot high walls that surround the city while those that fled eke out a living on the Outskirts. Those left behind either succumbed to The Blight or managed to survive in the literal underground of Seattle.
Amongst those that fled the city was Briar Blue (née Wilkes), young widow of the much-cursed Leviticus Blue and the daughter of Maynard Wilkes, a lawman whose final act in the chaos of the exodus out of the blighted city was to release the prisoners being held in the jail. For some it was an act of criminal negligence and suspicion. For others, mainly the seedier element of the population, it was an act of justice and heroism. Regardless, Briar and her son Ezekiel have lived a hard life, being ostracized and ridiculed for being kin to two of the most notorious men of Seattle. Fifteen years after the incident that killed a city, Zeke Wilkes now hopes to restore the good name of his grandfather and learn something of the truth behind the disaster by venturing into Seattle and going to the point of origin: the home Leviticus Blue shared with his mother and the basement laboratory of his father. His mother, fierce and determined, follows him into a devastated landscape filled with the ghosts of her past and the walking corpses of blighted “Rotters” to bring her son back home alive.
Priest has created a setting rich with storytelling possibilities. Much of it can be seen in more detail at her website “The Clockwork Century”. Two more novels based on this setting are in the works (Clementine and Dreadnought) and, based on how much I enjoyed Boneshaker, I await their release with great anticipation. Imagine an America where a war that even in our timeline boasted the highest casualty rate in history has been prolonged for fifteen more years. The expansion of the West, and the economic prosperity that came with it, has not happened. Add to this a heavy, poisonous gas that creates the walking dead. A very dark and grim past indeed. Despite this, Boneshaker is not a grim story. It is a story of survival, tenacity, and love.
Briar is the most well-drawn character in the novel. She is a lean woman, laconic, cold, and hard. She is spare with her words and with her affection but life has made her thus. The legends surrounding the two most important men in her life have been a burden to both her and her son. Her father was cold and hard, but perhaps had a sense of justice she didn’t understand when she was young. Or, perhaps he could just have been both a good man and right bastard at the same time. Her husband was a man she loved once, thought she understood, and learned nearly too late what his ambition was capable of. She clings to her son with a visceral fierceness. And, in his way, Zeke clings to her. They do not have an overtly close relationship; their love and affection lies buried beneath both Zeke’s anger and resentment and her defensiveness and reserve. It is this deep love that drives Briar to pursue her son with a tenacity and a fierceness that is a wonder to behold. It is their relationship that is the most compelling aspect of the novel.
Priest does a very good job creating the claustrophobic atmosphere of this new Seattle. The very air of the city is poison—unless you are in the underground chambers, sealed, and with fresh air being pumped in, you spend your days in a gas-mask desperately searching for filters that can be replaced to allow you to take a breath with ease. A trip of merely two blocks topside results in pursuit by a horde of hungry Rotters. Each of these scenes contributes to the dark and suspenseful tone of the novel.
But there is adventure to be had as well! In the rubble of deserted Seattle live ruthless survivors willing to do anything to continue surviving, and even thriving, in the new order. Some will help both Zeke and Briar; some will do them harm. Motives are as murky as the Blight gas that fills the air. Air-pirates run supplies to and from the city and also trade in “lemon sap”, a potent drug distilled from the Blight that may have unforeseen side-effects. Loyalties can easily be bought and traded. Highlights include an airship battle, a zombie incursion into an underground pub, characters with steam-punk’d mechanical limbs and body armor, and a rebellious melee in the luxurious and dangerous lair of a mad scientist. It doesn’t get any better than that.
The ending of Boneshaker primarily acts as a reveal of one of the central mysteries of the novel: whatever happened to Leviticus Blue after the Boneshaker debacle? I will not reveal the answer to that question (no spoilers here, by gum); however, I will say that I’m not sure if it was meant to be a twist ending or not. I enjoyed the way that Priest had her main characters address the elephant in the room regarding some fairly amazing coincidences that could have led to a more clichéd ending. A lesser author would have ignored these points in hopes that the reader would as well. However, I still figured out the gist of what actually happened fairly early on. Regardless, my enjoyment of the novel suffered not one iota by ferreting out the mystery. This is a novel very much about the journey and the fun of the ride and by that standard it delivers.