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Book Review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

This review was originally printed in Bull Spec Magazine, Issue #2.

How do you review a book that has been nominated for a Best Novel Nebula Award as well as a Best Novel Hugo Award? Then, as if it isn’t hard enough, the book’s editor is nominated for a Hugo Award as well? Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is that book, and now that it is at such a prestigious level in its lifespan it deserves to be looked at more closely, with a more critical eye.

Boneshaker starts us off with Briar and Ezekiel Wilkes, living in the Outskirts outside of a section of walled-off Seattle, sixteen years after Briar’s husband, Leviticus Blue, turned on his Incredible Bone-shaking Drill Engine and ravaged the city. While the destruction he caused was bad, it was nothing compared to the chaos afterward when it is discovered that he cracked open a pocket of gas called the Blight that killed anyone it came in contact with. And, days later, people were horrified when they saw those very same dead rising, and seeking the flesh of the living to feast upon. Briar’s father, Maynard Wilkes, became a bit of a folk hero after defying the law to save the lives of some of those trapped behind the early quarantine, and dying in the process, though in the eyes of the law and history he was condemned as a traitor. Zeke, convinced that his father wasn’t the villain everyone paints him out to be, resolves to enter the city and find proof that his father, and his grandfather besides, was a good man.

We set off on the adventures of Zeke as he explores the city, and Briar’s as she follows him, trying to find him and bring him home. They enter the walled-off city, which amazingly enough still has people living inside of it. They spend their time hiding from the zombies, called “rotters,” and somehow managing to survive in the mess of deteriorating buildings and collapsing tunnels. A large cast of characters is encountered along the way, many recognizing Briar for who she is and holding her in high regard, since so many of those inside the walls revere her father.

The pacing of the story was wonderful, with enough action and information being given to keep you moving along at a good pace. The story itself was engaging, keeping you interested and wanting to know more about the people and their lives inside the walled off city. The detail Priest went into to make this world come alive really pays off: The massive walls around the city; the thick and clinging yellow Blight on everything; and the airships that come and go all feel so real. It’s the kind of detail necessary to make the setting stand out, and this book didn’t skimp on anything.

However, there is some tarnish on Boneshaker when held to the more critical standard its award nominations have thrust upon it, and I apologize in advance when I say that this book needed more editing. There are large chunks of text that could have been removed as they were irrelevant to the story, and sentences using redundant words like “Leading with her left hand, Briar crept up and out of her hole on leather-soled feet that didn’t make a sound to disturb the disturbing silence.” trip you up and force you to re-read sections due to the jarring nature of the text.

Briar and Zeke are often flat and uninteresting, spending a lot of time telling us how they feel, but not really showing us how they feel. Matter of fact, they spend most of their time saying everything out loud, and we never quite understand what is going on in their heads.

Third, while the ending is slightly satisfying, Priest left us hanging on too many loose threads. Briar and Zeke are escaping the walled-off city, but they aren’t out yet, and given the problems with airships throughout the book, how am I to believe this one will be any different? Jeremiah Swakhammer, a secondary character that I came to really like, is severely wounded and being carried off for help, though we never learn of his fate. We are left to hope that a Chinese man in this hellish place can use nineteenth century alternative medicine to help him.

Lastly, as we are reading the story we get the idea that we are in an alternate history of our world: The Civil War has been raging for over a decade, the Klondike gold rush started earlier, and so on. However, Priest felt the need to add a note at the end defending her changes to the real world, and it felt as if she wasn’t confident enough in the work to let it stand on its own. This is a fiction novel, one with airships and the dead rising to feast on human flesh. I’m not expecting this to be the world I learned about in school.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I liked Boneshaker, despite the flaws in the work. Steampunk mixed with zombies is a definite winning combination, and Priest displays a deep love for both genres and has worked hard to make a setting that is fun and interesting while incorporating the two and keeping faithful to their roots. Fans of one or both will come away feeling good about the story and the setting, though zombie fans may wish that the walking dead featured a little more prominently in the total package.

If you read a lot of steampunk stories like Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air or its like, you may not feel she went deep enough into the genre, but you have to keep in mind she is setting this in an alternate history America, and to go too deep into changing the world may have undone itself. The elements of steampunk in the story were enough to put the setting in the right place. Don’t expect talking machines or clockwork men, but you can expect airships and sky pirates, funky machines and odd weapons, goggles and dusters, etc. It is very much a steampunk title and stays true to its origins.

So, is Boneshaker perfect? I really don’t think so, but the story is great and I would recommend it to just about anyone. Overall, Boneshaker really does something different and combines its parts into a satisfying whole that can without a doubt be called a definitive steampunk-horror novel. There is a lot of good stuff buried in these pages, and enough action and excitement to keep you turning them for hours. And if you want more in the world Priest has created, the novella Clementine will be available from Subterranean Press in May, and the follow-up novel Dreadnought will be available from Tor later in 2010.

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