Review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest

Tor Books
Released September 29, 2009
416 pages
Steampunk / Sci Fi

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In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus was Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine born.

But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.

Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes. Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenaged boy to support, but she and Ezekiel are managing. Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history.

His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.

This is going to be one of those reviews that are the hardest for me to write. Writing reviews for books I loved or hated are easy. Word spill out like water and I tend to have to hold myself back so I don’t end up with five pages of ranting. It’s the books that, once finished and the final pages are turned, I say to myself, “Huh. That was fine.”

Boneshaker is fine. It often suffers from Fellowship of the Rings syndrome, where the characters spend more time walking the landscape than actually doing something, but the steampunk Seattle is an interesting place to explore. There just wasn’t a whole lot for me to grab onto and love, so that I was left feeling like I might be reading this book out of duty towards the steampunk genre I love instead of because the narrative made me want to finish it.

Briar Wilkes has had a hard life. She is a tough woman raising a son after her scientist of a husband destroyed Seattle and started a zombie plague. Now 15-years-old and questioning the world, her son Ezekiel gets the brilliant idea to go into the zombie-filled city to prove that his father wasn’t the scheming criminal the entire world thinks he was. Of course Briar has to follow him in because she’s a good mother with a rifle and a gas mask.

I really like Briar. She fits into the western-esque nature of this world with a lot of grit and gumption. She is not afraid to do what needs to be done and won’t take nonsense from anyone just because she’s a woman. The underground world of zombie-Seattle is very much a Wild, Wild West sort of place with saloons and maniacal gang leaders and shoot outs and an illegal drug ring. There just happens to be a bunch of dead people trying to eat you at the same time.

Ezekiel is a teenage boy who thinks he knows enough about the world to understand how it works when he really doesn’t. Priest stays true to that nature and Zeke regularly messes things up and gets into plenty of danger. While I’m not a fan of him per se, I can respect the character she created because he’s very much true to what a 15-year-old boy would be like.

The steampunk elements are spread out pretty evenly and, outside the premise of the Boneshaker machine, are relegated to airships and weapons. There aren’t many out-there gadgets. Like I said, it feels more Wild West just with a few weapon mods. I could have used a little less gas mask description though.

But mostly the book suffers from walkabout syndrome with both Briar and Ezekiel’s stories mainly being about walking through plague-ridden Seattle trying to find what they’re looking for. The action sequences are all about running through tunnels, finding staircases, dealing with sealed doors and those sorts of things. Other than a mystery surrounding the true identity of the evil Professor Minnericht, the plot is regulated to “Will Briar find Ezekiel before they both get eaten by zombies?”

I guess I wanted more from this book. The cover is super cool and Boneshaker has become kind of a modern steampunk touch point, so I expected more excitement, more plotting, more something. I don’t think I’ll dive much further into this series when I have others that could entertain me more.