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by Cherie Priest

Fifteen years ago, or so, Briar Wilkes’ husband drove a giant underground tunneling machine around under Seattle, collapsing much of the financial district and letting loose the Blight, a noxious yellow gas that killed and zombified its victims.  Even after her husband disappeared, the gas kept coming and the authorities had no choice but to wall off the offending part of town, sequestering a significant chunk of 1866 Seattle behind a 200 foot high wall.  Now, Wilkes has to go back inside to find her son, who has ventured beyond the wall looking for the “truth” about his father.

A few thoughts:

  • Priest’s zombies, which the characters in the book call rotters spring from an accumulated poisoning by the Blight gas.  They can run and travel in packs, using preternaturally strong hearing to hone in on their victims.  While they are an interesting twist on the zombie genre, they’re really an environmental ingredient rather than the main focus of the book.
  • Boneshaker takes full advantage of the license allowed by the alternate history tradition.  She provides a little historical background to explain the differences between our world and hers, but mostly she just imagines a world where steam and electrical machinery took hold much earlier than it did in our world.  The mad scientist whom Wilkes finds running a little fiefdom inside the wall has access to an awful lot of nice toys.  In that way, this really is a fantasy novel rather than a science fiction one, as it makes very little effort to explain its wonders.
  • I love the different factions and competing interests Priest builds into the various characters throughout the narrative.  The overlapping experiences of mother and son, too, flesh out this aspect of the world nicely.
  • The long history of humankind suggests that we will make strong efforts to live where-ever we can eke out a meager existence.  But the level of death and mayhem within the wall strains credibility.  However, Priest’s city reminded me of the central flaw in the Warhammer 40,000 universe with regard to the explanation (circa 2nd edition) about how small and elite the Space Marine chapters were.  Essentially, the books suggest that there are very few space marines because they’re extremely resource-intensive.  But when you play the game, you inevitably kill lots of them.  A little simple math about the size of the chapters highlights a flaw in the world building: the chapters would die out very quickly, because the marines die in enormous numbers compared to their recruitment rate.  The same goes for Boneshaker.  In order to make the rotters frightening, Priest must make them very dangerous.  But they become so dangerous that it’s impossible to imagine the flimsy shelters scattered through this small city lasting fifteen years.
  • The resolution of the story is mostly satisfying, but I have to say that I was disappointed that one central question about the narrative was not resolved.  On one hand, that makes the story both more realistic and more believable, I suppose.  But on the other hand, I want to know the answer.  Perhaps that’s what the next novel is for.

Full of zombies, steam-powered machinery, gas masks and goggles, and airships galore, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker draws on much of the best of the Steampunk subgenre.  While the novel takes a while to really grab hold, in the end it’s pretty satisfying.

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