Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (Clockwork Century #1)

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.

Boneshaker is one of the steampunkiest books I’ve ever read, if that makes sense. I think in part because it’s also the most “gritty” of the steampunk books I’ve read. In all of the others, even when the circumstances that made the world steampunk were hellish and oppressive, there were still the existence of the well-off and a space within society where the steampunked world could be an advantage rather than a burden. In this book, the entire city of Seattle as it was known was altered by the Boneshaker. All of the downtown area was made uninhabitable and the surviving citizens both inside and outside the area are left poor and in desperate circumstances. All of the steampunk devices, with the exception of the Boneshaker, were developed and utilized with the main goal of aiding survival. It’s a stark, brutal world in which one simple mistake can cost you your life, as Zeke and Briar continually find out.

I liked the depiction of the Blighted area of Seattle as decrepit ghost town in which people amazingly managed to survive, form factions, and even maintain a base obligation in terms of looking out for other people. Also, the zombies (or rotters) never felt out of place or transplanted from other genre, because the story was less about a zombie menace as much as it was about the dangers of the Blight itself to survival. I did wonder how the hell everyone got enough food to eat. Since the Blight is toxic to humans, I’m assuming it’s toxic to animals and plants as well, so I’m thinking you couldn’t grow anything in there, so whenever the air smugglers take some of the Blight, they’re probably giving them a ton of food in exchange.

Briar was a pretty good protagonist, and I definitely enjoyed her chapters more than Zeke’s. It’s interesting – she’s a woman who’s defined by her relations to her father and her husband who invented the Boneshaker, and those relations are what people use to judge her by. Similarly, her own role as a mother defines many of her actions, since the reason she crosses the wall into the Blighted area of Seattle is to find her son. Still, even with so much of her identity determined by her relationship to others, she still has a sense of self-determination and choice in how she remembers and relates to these people. Even though most people remember her as the wife of the man who destroyed their lives, her focus is on survival and making choices as to what’s best for her and Zeke. Although her fear for her son is always in her mind, Briar is one hardened lady.

Zeke was pretty much your average fifteen-year-old boy who thinks he knows everything and is usually wrong. It was sort of aggravating to read his chapters because it’s blatantly clear how much of an idiot he is to cross the wall when he has no idea how dangerous the area is. He redeemed himself somewhat near the end when he uses his brains and manages to not play right into the villain’s hands.

I was a little put off that there were hardly any Chinese immigrants that held a significant role in the book, considering their numbers and their necessity in the Blighted city is mentioned a lot. They were always there, but at most points, they weren’t written as being anything more than a presence. And the one Chinese character whose presence could be considered necessary or significant is a bad guy.

Some other negatives I found were that the action sequences, particularly in the end, felt muddled and hard to follow. In addition, there was a certain lack of specificity, particularly when it came to Maynard, Briar’s father. I get why he’s a folk figure to the people within the wall, but I don’t fully understand why Briar is so disappointed and bitter about him.

This book was nominated for last year’s Hugo awards, and while it’s a solid, enjoyable book, I’m not quite sure why it was nominated, to be honest. I’d say the fact that it was one of the first major books of the beginning steampunk trend within speculative fiction, which made it a whole lot more original than a lot of books out there, gave it an edge. This isn’t to knock the book itself, but… I don’t know. Maybe I just have an old-fashioned outlook when it comes to the Hugos in that I’d be more likely to go for books that are a little bit more about “ideas”, which is ironic, because I hate it when books are all about “ideas”. It is definitely an original book, and for the majority of the time, it’s well executed.  It was an adventure. I’ll probably get around to reading the rest of the series, eventually.

Disclosure – library

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