Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is a Steampunk novel that tries to make the genre fun. In contrast to gloomy dystopian works such as The Difference Engine, which seem to be as much about the failings of political systems and the political class as anything else, Boneshaker is an adventure story with a Steampunk setting.
In the days of the Gold Rush, many people looked for better ways of extracting the valuable ore from the ground. In Seattle, inventor Leviticus Blue constructed the Boneshaker, an enormous moving machine that could drill deep into the earth. On its trial run, however, the machine cut a destructive swath across the city, causing buildings to collapse and releasing a toxic gas, dubbed the Blight. Victims of the Blight become shambling, zombie-like creatures. Those who survived evacuated Seattle, retreating to the outlying areas to eke out livings as best as possible. They built a huge wall around the city, keeping in the Blight – and its zombie victims – as best as possible. One such evacuee was Briar Wilkes Blue, Leviticus’s widow, daughter of folk hero Maynard Wilkes (who helped evacuate the Seattle jails before succumbing to the Blight). Briar lives with her teenage son, Ezekiel, who has grown up with the knowledge that his father was the infamous Leviticus Blue who unleashed the Blight. One day, Ezekiel took off for the walled city: partly a teenage boy adventure, partly a desire to clear his father’s name.
But Seattle is not empty. Hordes of hungry zombies roam the streets, while a small number of outlaws, opportunists, and antisocial misfits still live there, in underground rooms and buildings that are sufficiently sealed from the Blight that they do not suffer its effects. When Briar discovered her son gone, and learned his destination, she, too, set out for the wall, knowing that he was unlikely to be able to survive on his own. She negotiated an airship ride into the city, then set out to find her son.
The book alternates points of view between mother and son. Both encounter survivors who appear sympathetic – but do they have ulterior motives? And who is the mysterious Dr. Minnericht, who controls the largest faction inside the wall, has wondrous technology, and insinuates that he may be Leviticus Blue? Zombies attack (of course), alliances are questioned, and secrets are revealed.
This is the first book set in the world of the Blight, though I don’t know whether future books will features any of the same characters.
I don’t want to oversell the Steampunk aspects of the book. In some ways, they seem like afterthoughts, using familiar tropes – goggles, airships – to fit into the genre. The language does not seem particularly 19th-century. Other aspects – gas masks, anachronistic inventions – are more tightly integrated into the story. At heart, this is an adventure tale, motivated by a mother’s drive to protect her son. The book does not have a great deal of back story – I summarized the bulk of it above – and the plot is fairly linear. (This is not necessarily a failing. Sometimes one doesn’t want a thousand-page tome.) Like a good adventure tale, the pages practically turned themselves. In fact, speaking of thousand-page tomes, I kept moving through Boneshaker at the expense of Stephen King’s Under the Dome.