How can I resist a book billed as a steampunk zombie novel? I took Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker home from the library Friday evening and finished it last night. Because the end clearly set up a sequel, I look forward to the next installment of the adventures of the Wilkes family.
Boneshaker is set in an alternate Seattle. More than that, it’s set in an alternate United States where the Civil War has just entered its 18th year of fighting. All the action takes place in Seattle and on Bainbridge Island. So where did the zombies come from? About 16 years before the start of the novel, a man named Leviticus Blue–supposedly to win a prize from the Russians–created a massive drill (the eponymous Boneshaker). On its first test run, the drill destroyed the financial district and let loose a gas known as the Blight. The Blight is highly toxic and, after it kills you, it turns you into something like a Boyle zombie called a rotter. Downtown Seattle was evacuated and, to contain the Blight, a massive wall was built and the population evacuated. The gas is still seeping out of the ground and, for the non-zombies who still live in the infected area, air has to be pulled down to street level and gas masks worn outside of safe areas.
The novel follows two main characters, Briar Wilkes and her son, Zeke. Briar is the widow of the man who created the drill and is a social outcast. Zeke is desperate to prove that his father was an innocent inventor. When Zeke goes over the wall to try and prove this, Briar has to enlist the help of air pirates* to get over the wall an rescue him. Zeke meets Doornails (nickname for the living on the other side of the wall) with suspect motives for helping him and runs away from rotters. Briar meets people who honor her sheriff father’s peace and who help her try and track down her idiot son. Meanwhile, they both try to stay out of the way of the tin pot dictator who runs a lot of the polluted territory. This man, a Dr. Minnericht, sounds an awful lot like Briar’s inventor husband.
It took me a chapter to two to get into the book, most likely because of all the hype on the back cover. Boneshaker starts out sounding a lot like your standard steampunk alternate history. The book really gets going when the action shifts to inside the wall and the terrifyingly fast and clever rotters show up. Hell, even the air is dangerous and the characters have to be very careful to wear gas masks with strong filters. One minor character lets his slip and he gets zombified within minutes.
There is a lot of unbelievable stuff in this book. What helps is that Priest made the setting so real. Many summers ago, I went on the Underground Tour of Seattle. Seattle has a fairly wacky frontier history as it is; it really is a great place to set a novel like this. The characters spend a lot of time underground. Every time they went below, I was reminded of what I’d seen on the tour. There are tunnels underneath downtown Seattle. They’re close and dark and dirty and I could totally imagine rotters running around down there. The tour should probably be required before reading this book. At the end, Priest writes a defensive sounding Author’s Note where she apologizes for the liberties she took with the history and yes, she knows that X wasn’t built until 18-whatever.
Boneshaker is a very original and very enjoyable book. The only thing I didn’t really like was Zeke, who seems to waver between being a defiant young man and a whiny teenager. When he’s in whiny mode, he’s a little hard to take. At points, when Zeke was trying not to puke in his gas mask, I couldn’t help but think that this little inside-the-wall jaunt would be good for his character. Briar is the best part of the book, I think. She’s strong and determined. Even when a literal man in armor comes to rescue her, there’s some question about who’s rescuing who. I look forward to seeing more of her.
* All steampunk novels have to have dirigibles. It’s the law, apparently.