Review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

It’s freezing outside and winter-cold-season inside.  The only good thing I can say about that is I’ve had LOTS of time to read lately.  This year’s ugly winter cold has meant slowing waaayyy down.  And the thirty degree weather and my recently-repaired fireplace means I’m staying in every chance I get.  So aside from the sniffling and coughing, I have to say I’m quite content at the moment.  And you can expect a lot of reviews coming in the near future.

First up is Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.  This was a really cool book and particularly good sick-bed reading.  It’s set in Seattle during the time of the Civil War, although because this is pre-statehood Washington, the Civil War is occurring far in the distance.  Life in Seattle is driven instead by the gold rush and is pretty rough around the edges.

The book begins with Leviticus Blue, an inventor who develops the world’s most advanced drilling machine to extract gold from the thick ice of Alaska.  Unfortunately, in its trial run the device, called Boneshaker, goes awry and tears up most of Seattle.  Thousands die and buildings and homes are destroyed.  What happens next is even worse – somehow the damage to the earth causes poisonous gases (the Blight) to rise up and kill the population, turning them into “rotters” or zombies.  The gas is so pervasive that the only thing the government can do is wall up the city of Seattle and leave the rotters to themselves.  The people are evacuated and settle into the Outskirts of Seattle.

Blue disappears and is despised by the town, although it isn’t entirely clear whether the Boneshaker’s failure was intentional (the street of banks was particularly torn up and all the cash disappeared).  His wife, Briar Wilkes Blue, and their son, Zeke, have to live with the torment of being related to the most hated man in town.

To make Briar and Zeke’s life a little more complicated, Briar’s father Maynard was responsible for engineering a prison breakout that freed all the prisoners before the wall around Seattle could close them in.  He died in the breakout, and is viewed by the criminal population as a folk hero, but by the rest of the population as a criminal. So Briar and Zeke have lived for sixteen years in the shadows cast by these two men.

Zeke, a typical teenager, is tired of taking abuse and anxious to exonerate his father, so he heads to the walled city to find evidence that his father was innocent.   Briar is afraid he’ll be trapped inside and goes in after him, which is easier said than done. There are drug traders who have learned to turn the poison gas into “yellow sap”, a narcotic.  These drug traders know the most about how to get in and out of the city, so Briar has to work with them to get in.

They find a whole world inside the walls, including mad scientists, air pirates, saloon owners, and regular humans just trying to survive.  Zeke and Briar have to navigate this world, distinguish friend from enemy, find each other, and get out before the gas or the zombies kill them.  In the process they learn a lot more about themselves and their family history.

There are some plot holes here — the biggest one is why people stay in a city full of poison gas and deadly zombies, when there are tunnels and air pirates that can take them out?  One character explains that the gas will eventually escape into the outside world and at least they’ve learned to live with it.  I think the other answer is that, as with any underworld, there are always people who prefer that kind of life to that of lawful society and in fact by the end of this book I found myself wondering if Briar might choose that life as well.

It was a little hard to follow as the characters run from building to building and street to street  (a map would have been helpful).  This book is probably more fun for readers who know a lot of the landmarks of Seattle.  Priest explains she takes some liberties with when some buildings were actually built so she could use them in this book.  My other complaint is that as the characters go “behind the walls” they lose all sense of time, and so does the reader.  This would be fine except that Zeke enters Seattle a full ten hours or so ahead of Briar, so time is actually important to the story.  I really wanted to know where he was in time relative to where she was.

Zeke is not as well developed as he could be, but in the end this is Briar’s story and it’s a good one.  Briar is a tough, take-no-prisoners kind of woman, but one who also realizes that she’s spent much of her life cowering and hasn’t given her son everything he needs.

This is not a book that will have you pondering the meaning of life, but it is a steampunk-meets-zombie adventure that is unlike most books I’ve read.  Priest has created a great set of characters, an extremely detailed and inventive world, and an exciting story.  It was a hell of a lot of fun to read.  If someone doesn’t make this into a movie I’ll be very surprised.

This book is part of a trilogy, along with Clementine and Dreadnought, but the stories are only loosely connected, which is a shame.  I really wanted to find out what happens next.

3 Comments on “Review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

  1. I’m surprised that the main character is actually the mother character. It’s a rare occurrence to have female characters at all in the more sci-fi books, and to have her be a mother at that is… interesting. I’ll admit that though I like adventure-stories with the best of them, I don’t like my books with plot holes or underdeveloped semi-main characters. It sounds intriguing and fun, but I don’t think I’ll be setting this as a priority any time soon…

    • That’s why I try to be balanced in my reviews — this book may not be for you — I would check out Mistborn or Sabriel instead, those are much more detailed stories with great female characters.

  2. Pingback: Review: Dreadnought by Cherie Priest « The Book Stop

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