Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
Tor Books, 2009
ISBN 978-0-7653-1841-1

If pressed, I have to admit that had it not been for a Hugo Award nomination, I probably would not have read Cherie Priest’s novel, Boneshaker.  It’s not that it didn’t look interesting – after all, it is definitely of the new-ish steampunk genre and what’s not to love about all the potential there?  But it also involves zombies, and I can’t deny that zombie literature isn’t my favorite.  Don’t get me wrong – I love “Shaun of the Dead” and totally enjoyed “Zombieland”, and was enthralled while reading World War Z, but I’m a kind of squicky person and tend to shy away from rotting limbs and the smell of decay, myself.  I like the action in my fiction to not consistently raise my bile (sorry to all my friends out there who are firmly entrenched in the horror camp – more power to ya).

But I’m glad that I didn’t let this unfair prejudice deter me from what I assumed would be a well written story (hence the Hugo nomination), because I would have indeed missed out on a true gem if I had.  And the zombie factor (or “rotters”, as they are known in Boneshaker) is a well integrated part of this fascinating and extremely well recounted tale of a son’s rebellion and a mother’s redemption.

Boneshaker takes place in alternate reality frontier Seattle.  Gold has been found in the Pacific Northwest and the Klondike rush is in full swing, even as the Civil War rages on in the East.  Life is gritty, but full of the elusive promise of avarice.  Then on January 2, 1863, catastrophe strikes.  This is the day that Dr. Levitius Blue, scientist, inventor and engineer extraordinaire, unleashes the Incredible Bone Shaking Drill Engine (aka “Boneshaker”).  Meant to be a massive and powerful tool in extracting gold from beneath the frozen turf and ice of Alaska, its maiden rogue run bores underneath downtown Seattle, wreaking havoc as buildings crumble, streets sink and citizens are horribly injured or killed.  Also released in the chaos is a mysterious, yellowish gas billowing from the depths of the opened earth that proves even more deadly than the cave-ins and falling buildings.  Anyone who breaths in or is even touched by “the blight” either dies, or becomes one of the living dead, soulless and ever hungry for the flesh and blood of the living.

Forward 16 years.  Seattle endures, but it is a much different city than it was before.  A huge wall has been erected around the contaminated city blocks that contain the heavy Blight, as well as the roaming bands of rotters.  The Blight has contaminated the water supply, but a water treatment plant, employing hundreds of workers from “the Outskirts”, has developed a process for removing the contamination.  The leftover resin from the distillation process has its uses, as well, including “lemon sap”, a highly addictive illegal drug that almost always proved chronic to the user.

Leviticus Blue was never seen after that fateful January night, but his young widow, Briar Blue (now known as Briar Wilkes, retaining her maiden name in an effort to put the past behind her) remains, barely scraping by while working at the treatment plant and living with the mantle of the widow of the man who brought the Blight – but also tolerated as the granddaughter of a local hero.  Her son, Ezekiel, was born after the rampage of the Boneshaker, and never knew his father or grandfather.

Against this backdrop, the story develops.  Briar ekes out a dreary living and dreams of moving out East once the war is over, where the name “Blue” would not garner such resentment.  She is a virtual stranger to her son, hoping that ignoring their past will isolate him from its effects.  However, this lack of openness only allows for Zeke to resent his mother and romanticize about his dead father, and gives rise to his belief that the inventor was merely a pawn, forced into premature action by wealthy and powerful Russian backers who demanded evidence of Boneshaker’s prowess.  Spurred by an episode with a visiting historian and a particularly harsh argument with his mother, Zeke decides to prove his father’s innocence by slipping into the walled city and retrieving a fabled ledger that supposedly documented Russian pressure to falsify tests and move the project forward – a secret ledger hidden in the old Blue household nestled deep in the walled city of Blight and rotters.

Once Briar realizes what Zeke’s plans entail, she takes off after him, waiting by the underground tunnel that is the one entrance to the walled city for his return.  But an earthquake caves in the tunnel, and Briar, knowing her son is inside and determined to make things right between them, seeks another way across the walls regardless of the dangers that await – even if this means engaging the services of a mercenary smuggling crew of a pirated dirigible who will drop her over the wall.

What both Zeke and Briar find in the city during their separate journeys defies all sense and sensibility, with the discovery of a network of hidden and suspicious societies who operate within the walls, aided by sealed enclaves and cobbled together mechanics that draw safe air from above, massive bellows worked by itinerate Chinese settlers, and ingenious machines that range from deep sea like armor, fantastical but unreliable weapons and mechanical limbs, most of which come from the brilliant yet unstable mind of the mysterious genius who is known only by the name of Dr. Minnericht.  It quickly becomes apparent that murderous gasses and marauding rotters are not the only threats in this dangerous city – knowing who to trust and who to flee may prove to be the most desperate challenge of all.

What really struck me about Boneshaker, though, was how human the writing was, and how strong the characters became.  Rather than being awash in the dross and gleam of the mechanical elements or caught up in the heart pounding encounters with the mindless, relentless rotters and their ilk, the story really did spin on Briar’s steely resolve, and to a lesser degree Zeke’s idealistic quest.  Add to it a cadre of supporting characters that are brilliantly realized and make the action feel real and urgent, and a writing style that nevertheless reminds us that under all the horror and paranoia are real people with dreams and desires, and you have an amazing mix of adventure, dread, and involvement in the outcome of each twist and turn in the plot.  At the heart of Ms. Priest’s story is always the humanness of her characters (deftly set against the unreal), brought out by touching prose, stark enough to maintain the mood but elegant enough to keep the reader grounded.  Take, for example, this excerpt:

Back where he’d started from, he felt a sense of failure, until he remembered the mask he clutched like a lifeline.

Minnericht had said Zeke couldn’t have one, and he’d been wrong about that, hadn’t he?  Granted, it had come off a corpse, but the boy tried hard not to think about the face that the visor had most recently covered.  He tried to take the philosophical view that the other man couldn’t use it anymore, so there was nothing wrong with taking it, and that made sense.  But it felt no less disgusting when he smudged his thumb along the inside of the glass and felt the dampness of someone else’s dying breath.

Glorious stuff, that, even over the metallic tang that resides in the reader’s mind.

Another novel set in this “clockwork century” of Ms. Priest’s making has been released (Dreadnought), built off the feel of Boneshaker but veering in a different direction (an earlier offering, Clementine, had a limited release and is not easily available – I have it on order from my local library but the waiting list is long).   Based on what I have read of this unnerving but intriguing landscape so far, you can be sure that I will pluck this next one off the shelf at my earliest opportunity, without even glancing at the dust jacket or reading a single review – and regardless of any bile that the specter of fetid undead may bring to my squeamish sensibilities.  The writing is good enough to make that an intrinsic and welcome part of the adventure.

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~ by arcticwren on October 14, 2010.

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