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A Steampunk novel by Cherie Priest.

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Zombies! Air ships! Disasters! (Oh My!)

  • Dec 10, 2010
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Two years ago, I had never heard of Steampunk (and if pressed, I would have guessed it had something to do with music).  Three months ago, I’d heard of it, and I could even name a few books in the genre, but I still had no idea what it actually was.  Two weeks ago, I read Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and got thoroughly schooled in the matter.

(NB for the uninitiated: Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction/speculative fiction that is set in an era or world where steam power is the predominant technology.)

So, Boneshaker.

In the early years of the Civil War, when people fueled by rumors of gold flooded into the Pacific Northwest, Russian prospectors in search of a way to drill through Alaska’s ice and get rich quick put out feelers for an inventor who could create a machine that would do the heavy lifting for them. They found a Seattle man named Leviticus Blue, who said his Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine was could do just that. So the prospectors commissioned the maverick Dr. Blue, and the Boneshaker was born.

But before the Russians could start drilling, the Boneshaker rumbled out of Dr. Blue’s garage and tore up the ground beneath the better part of Seattle. (Whether this was an accident or a deliberate act of malevolence is hotly debated and remains unknown.) And that’s not all! Not only did the Boneshaker ruin the foundation of the city, it released a toxic gas that turned the denizens of downtown Seattle into walking dead.


(Priest calls them rotters.)

Sixteen years later, Leviticus Blue’s widow Briar Wilkes is raising their teenage son Ezekiel and doing her damnedest to convince him that his father, despite rumors to the contrary, was not an innocent man and that his grandfather, Briar’s father, wasn’t quite the hero he was said to be, either.

But boys will be boys, and his Briar’s warning isn’t enough to keep Ezekiel from finding a way into the now walled-off city (and by walled-off, I mean that a 200-foot wall surrounds the part of downtown where Blight gas still rises from the Boneshaker’s cracks) looking for answers and maybe, just maybe, a chance to clear his father’s name.

There’s nothing to retrieve from Leviticus Blue. Nothing at all. If you dig too hard or push too far, if you learn too much, it will only break your heart. Sometimes, everyone is right. Not always and not even usually, but once in a while, everyone is right.

So Ezekiel sneaks into the city by way of sewer tunnels (which conveniently collapse in an earthquake between the time he enters and Briar figures out what he’s done), and Briar goes after him by dirigible. Dirigible, y’all! Like, a flying machine. I love it.

(This is probably a good place to note that since I’m not nearly well-versed enough in Steampunk to write a critical review, this is, much like the time I read my first romance novel, simply a discussion of my experience exploring a new genre.)

So Briar goes in after Zeke, and in alternative narratives we see them meet with all manner of shady characters and have too-close-for-comfort run-ins with the creepy guy—basically, the lord of the underworld—who calls himself Dr. Minnericht and who some say is actually Leviticus Blue.  There are kick-ass fight scenes and face-to-face battles with Blight-breathing rotters, and yes, there are the aforementioned dirigibles (just wanted another excuse to use that word) and drugs and myriad steam technologies and conspiracies and YOU CAN’T TRUST ANYONE.

And it is a rollicking good time. I mean, if you can suspend your disbelief enough to buy into the whole poisonous-gas-rising-from-the-earth-makes-people-zombies thing (and Priest sells the hell out of it), you are in for 400 pages of awesome.  The characters are fully realized, and Priest’s worldbuilding is thorough but subtle, avoiding the painful info dump that is common to lesser books of the science fiction and fantasy genres.

And Briar Wilkes? Talk about a strong female character! She is a feminist reader’s dream.

The shit starts flowing, and Briar just grabs her gun, pulls on her boots, and heads straight into it. She keeps her cool in the craziest of situations and navigates dealings with the burly air pirates (air pirates!!!) as if she’s been doing it her whole life, and as Priest said during her talk at Fountain Bookstore a few weeks ago, she is immensely competent. And that makes for damn good reading. Anybody can put a weak character into a scary situation and watch as the walls cave in, but it is much more interesting to put strong characters into terrifying situations and create genuine tension. When Priest explained this philosophy of hers, I just about jumped out of my chair to whoop and holler.

It’s about time someone said that, don’tcha think? Especially after the last several years of whiny female characters who just want to stand by their creepy (sparkly) men. Briar Wilkes kicks ass all on her own, and she resists the male characters’ attempts to weaken and intimidate her. Zeke isn’t half bad, either, but he’s not nearly as compelling as his mother, who really makes the book come alive.

As with any journey into a new genre, I went into Boneshaker not really knowing what to expect. I loved the camp and the adventure and the characters, and I really loved the dirigibles (there’s that word again), even if I did find them slightly unbelievable and distracting even in the context of a book about zombies. Boneshaker was a really fun read for me, and it reminded me that part of why I’m a reader is that it allows me to be and do anything I want, even the impossible. So, sure. I’ll buy the rotters and the crazy-ass machines and the taking liberties with historical fact and the flying pirates. You have to give yourself over to books like this, and I’m willing. I don’t see myself become a steampunk fanatic any time soon, but I’ll certainly be reading Dreadnought (the sequel to Boneshaker) and keeping my ears open for recommendations from fans of the genre who know much more about it than I do. All in all, this is an experience I’m glad I had, especially since it included an opportunity to hear Cherie Priest discuss her writing in person. I loved what she had to say, and I am dying to find out about the next chapter of this story.

Thanks for joining me in another adventure in genre-busting!  If you’re a seasoned steampunk fan or are interested in trying it out with Boneshaker, my favorite indie has signed copies available online.

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review by . November 10, 2009
I guess this was my first experience with the steampunk genre (not realizing it was a separate genre until I wikipedia'd), and it was a nice ride. Basically steampunk brings Jules Verne to the future he helped envision and turns him around to report on the past he might have lived--if that past included zombies, toxic chemicals, airships (in 1880) and the Civil War (yes, also in 1880--Stonewall Jackson survived and kept the South in the war a long, long time).    The Boneshaker …
Quick Tip by . February 19, 2011
posted in SF Signal
A quick, fun read. I enjoy steampunk, but not being a zombie story fan, I liked Boneshaker a lot more than I thought I would. I'm trying to decide whether this would make a good gateway novel for certain friends.
review by . February 11, 2010
Guilty pleasures -- we all have them. Once in a blue moon I crave Kraft macaroni and cheese out of a box, or a huge heaping pile of homemade mashed potatoes with chicken gravy made from fried chicken.  Or a Marie Callender's pot pie, even though they're like 600 calories and almost as many grams of fat. Well, I have them in books, too, and my favorite guilty pleasures are steampunk and pulp.  I just finished Boneshaker and it is the equivalent of hot comfort food between two covers.   …
review by . December 06, 2009
Back in the Civil War era in Seattle, before Washington was even a state, ambitious inventor Leviticus Blue created a massive tunneling engine, intended to unearth gold buried beneath the Alaskan ice. Only problem is when he first used it he undermined several city blocks and unleashed a stream of viscous, zombifying gas that eventually turned the whole of the central city into a walled-in wasteland. It also turned the young wife of the inventor, Briar Wilkes, into a pariah among hopeless people, …
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Rebecca Joines Schinsky ()
Ranked #326
Panty-throwing, book-loving wild woman behind The Book Lady's Blog. Reader, critic, lover of indie bookstores, National Book Critics Circle member.
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Starred Review. Maternal love faces formidable challenges in this stellar steampunk tale. In an alternate 1880s America, mad inventor Leviticus Blue is blamed for destroying Civil War–era Seattle. When Zeke Wilkes, Blue's son, goes into the walled wreck of a city to clear his father's name, Zeke's mother, Briar Wilkes, follows him in an airship, determined to rescue her son from the toxic gas that turns people into zombies (called rotters and described in gut-churning detail). When Briar learns that Seattle still has a mad inventor, Dr. Minnericht, who eerily resembles her dead husband, a simple rescue quickly turns into a thrilling race to save Zeke from the man who may be his father. Intelligent, exceptionally well written and showcasing a phenomenal strong female protagonist who embodies the complexities inherent in motherhood, this yarn is a must-read for the discerning steampunk fan.(Oct.)
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ISBN-10: 0765318415
ISBN-13: 978-0765318411
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Tor Books

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