Let me begin by stating that I thoroughly enjoyed Boneshaker. I didn’t know much about it before purchasing it other than it was steampunk and it kept getting mentioned in the various places I tend to lurk on the internet. I suppose I succumbed to peer pressure, but it was worth it.
Aside from my unfamiliarity with author Cherie Priest‘s work, I was a bit apprehensive about the novel because it is billed as steampunk. I like the idea of steampunk, but have not really engaged in any media that the core fans would consider steampunk. Boneshaker is a character driven science fiction story set in an alternate Civil War era Seattle. Don’t be scared away by the mention of steampunk, and likewise, don’t let your definition of steampunk prejudice you against the story Priest is telling.
Set mostly in the walled confines of Seattle, fortified to contain the mysterious zombie-inducing blight gas, Boneshaker is about Zeke, a boy trying to vindicate his father’s name, and thereby exonerate his mother and himself. And about that boy’s mother, Briar, who has lost everything except her son, and her determined search to save him from his hazardous quest inside the walls to find the truth she has withheld from him.
The heart of Seattle, thought by most to be dead to the blight and the ‘rotters’, is actually a complex ecosystem of human survivors living within the poisoned air. The city is painted as a main character in the story, but the only one that isn’t really developed. I had a hard time visualizing the extent of the city enclosed by the walls and the level of development of the architecture for a frontier port at the turn of the century. The initial description left me with the impression of a much smaller, less advanced city center than what I kept encountering during the story. I’m not sure how much of this is a deficiency in Priest’s delivery versus my own lack of attention or knowledge of Seattle and the archetypes I summoned into being based on her description. But that is really my only negative comment.
Priest builds her story based on the relationships of her characters and the precarious alliances needed to stand against the poison blight and the zombies it creates. And all of the characters have something to hide – even the boy Zeke, though he starts the story innocent enough. Priest expertly plays on these hidden motivations which shade the choices her characters make. The result is that the reader shares in the protagonists’ anxiety, as one can never be sure one knows how another character will react to a situation. Not all of the good have been redeemed, and some of the bad refuse to be. But the reader is always allowed to hope.
The climax of the story is tied to the true identity of the mad scientist that controls the city. He may or may not be Zeke’s father, Briar’s husband, and the reason for the infestation of the blight. Priest succeeds in presenting the story, through the points of view of two different characters, in a way that leaves the reader unsure as to the truth until the reveal. Zeke is in search of the truth, but his age and impassioned bias may permit him to be deceived. Briar professes to know the truth, but there is no proof that her statements aren’t a coping mechanism of self-delusion.
The brightest aspect of Priest’s work is the authenticity of her characters’ reactions. The reader does not simply empathize with the characters, but shares in their experiences. Zeke’s reaction to the Chinaman’s death. Briar’s reaction to revealing the truth to Zeke of his father. The tension of Swakhammer’s injuries. Very strong. Not being in Zeke’s head after he learns the truth, perhaps less satisfying in hindsight, but it was not distracting at the time. Perhaps Zeke learned enough during his time in the city that his reaction didn’t require any more deliberation.
I listened to the audio book through Audible, and the reading is split between Kate Reading and Wil Wheaton, alternating chapters as the point of view switches between Briar and Zeke. I thought both narrators performed very well, and I enjoyed the varied voices. The point where the two storylines intersect and some characters are suddenly voiced by a different narrator may be jarring or confusing at first. But I think that speaks to the quality of the reading, that the characters are presented in such an identifiable manner by their readers that the listener relies on that voice more than the dialogue tags.
Unfortunately, the next story in the series, Clementine, is a shorter piece and I will probably have to pick it up in print. This means that, realistically, it will be a while before I get to read it and then continue with the audiobooks.
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest; 2009 Tor Books.