(2009) Cherie Priest, Tor, £7.99, pbk, 414 pp, ISBN 978-1-447-22508-9
Eh? I hear you say. You’re reviewing Boneshaker, which won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and was nominated for a Hugo? But that came out years ago. Well, it did actually, in 2009, and since then has sold gazillions of copies and is up for a big screen adaptation by Hammer films, no less, but this is its first British printing, so hence this review, and given that this is 2013, a whole four years later, it would be an interesting discussion to ask if we are already steampunked-out? Or S'punked-out? In 2009 we probably weren't, but by 2009 we might already have had our fill of zombie fare, but Priest gave that sub-genre a little jolt in the decaying arm by including the shambling dead within the pages of Boneshaker albeit by renaming them the 'rotters'.
Where did they come from? Well, inventor Leviticus Blue has made the 'Bone-Shaking Drill Engine' or 'Boneshaker' an earth-moving device with the purpose of getting the last reserves out of the Russian gold reserves in Alaska (we are talking alternative history here), but unfortunately the machine digs beneath Seattle and release a toxic gas called The Blight which turns those who breath it into zombies. Now years later, Seattle is shut off behind a huge wall and Blue's widow and son find life hard, particularly as everyone knows that Briar Wilkes was actually the inventor’s wife and makes sure that she knows they know as she ekes out an existence working in the treatment plant that tries to handle water contaminated with The Blight. Tensions run high between Briar and her son Ezekiel, or Zeke for short, and after one argument too many, Zeke runs away with an old gasmask and rifle for company, as he is intent on finding out the truth about his father, and prove his innocence, leaving Briar with no choice at all, but to follow and try and protect him.
All of the above should illustrate that back in 2009, Priest had avoiding some of the clichés that had already gathered around steampunk by setting her novel not in Victorian Britain, at the heart of an Empire ruled through advances in steam power, but in an America where the Civil War still raged, and Briar is a refreshingly different heroine, not a teenager or someone in their 20s, instead she is a motivated by love and motherhood (and perhaps a guilty secret) and is not a bodice-wearing, gun-totting woman seeking adventure and romance. Getting her son back in one piece will suit her very much, but that’s not going to be anywhere as easy as she thinks because while Zeke has found a way into the walled city through an old tunnel, this collapses leaving Briar with no choice, but to go over the wall, trading on the fond memories and goodwill that people still hold for her own father to get into Seattle where she finds that the remaining populous are under constant threat from the 'rotters' and the masked man called Doctor Minnericht is busy playing all sides against each other for his own advantage and waiting below the city like a big spider sitting in his web.
If you are coming late to the party, and used to more recent steampunk fare, 'Boneshaker' is probably a book that you will either love wholeheartedly or hate. It wears its heart on its sleeve and tackles its world and plot with big brush strokes rather than fine detail, and while action-packed in places, it is also slow in others given the limited time period over which the novel occurs.
That aside, I suspect the majority of readers will be hooked by the first of Priest's Clockwork Century series, and rush to get the British Isles editions of Dreadnought, Ganymede, and The Inexplicables if they have not read them already.
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