Steampunk Spotlight: Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker

Steampunk Spotlight: Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker

boneshaker3One of the most popular steampunk books of the last few years, Boneshaker (Amazon, B&N) melded some of the most popular genre elements of steampunk and the zombie apocalypse wave of fiction. In this review from Black Gate #15, I commented that the book was a little action-heavy, full of zombie chases that didn’t always translate well on the printed page. I compared it to a George Romero film … and it turns out that someone took that to heart, because it’s being made into a film. I don’t normally go to zombie movies, but I’ll definitely make an exception for this one, which may well be the most visually-stunning zombie film ever.


Cherie Priest
Tor (416 pp, $15.99, 2009)
Reviewed by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

Steampunk is traditionally set in a Victorian urban environment, with a veneer of gentility that covers a darker underbelly. And steampunk almost always includes airships (or at least flying bicycles)… often with air pirates in tow.

The weird west mythos, on the other hand, represents the frontier. While technology is usually central to steampunk, the weird west is often defined by some sort of monster (frequently zombies), but these elements can cross genres. The 1999 Will Smith film Wild Wild West featured a flying bicycle and a giant robotic spider, firmly placing it in the camp of steampunk by most accounts, but containing many weird west elements.

Boneshaker takes many of these staples, puts them in a blender, and sets to mix. It is set in a modified 1880’s Seattle, which has been walled off because a gas drifting out of the ground turns people into zombies.

Check mark for weird west setting.

What about steampunk? There are airships (check), air pirates (check), goggles (check), gas masks (check), and various forms of advanced steam-powered technology (check), including battle armor (double check).

In fact, the zombie-making gas is the result of steam tech gone awry, as the reader learns in the first few pages. In 1863, an inventor named Leviticus Blue decided to test “Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine” by going on an underground romp beneath Seattle (including, apparently, a couple of bank vaults). The problem is that he tapped into some kind of underground pocket of this strange gas. Blue was never seen again (presumed dead) and the city was quarantined.

The novel itself begins seventeen years later, when Blue’s son, Zeke, decides to sneak inside the walled city to clear his father’s name. Zeke’s mother, the widow Briar Wilkes, is forced to follow him in when an earthquake seals off his escape route.

The city certainly isn’t empty, because the gas is regularly smuggled out to make drugs in the outside world. Once the main characters are in the walled Seattle, the book proceeds through a series of harrowing encounters with all manner of threats: zombies, kidnappers, smugglers, air pirates, and an inventor who may or may not be a resurrection of Leviticus Blue. (You’ll have to read the book to find that one out.)

My wife felt that Boneshaker didn’t have enough action, but I felt like it was, if anything, too heavy on the action. For large sections of the book, it seems to be nothing but combat mixed with frenzied flight that would make George Romero proud.

There is a plot, of course. What happened to Leviticus Blue? Will Zeke be able to clear his name? What secrets about Blue’s life or death is Briar hiding? The problem with the book is that it becomes so fixated on the chaos within the city that for large chunks you absolutely forget about these plot points. It is good in the sense that the writing clearly draws you in so that you don’t think about it too much, but I have to wonder about a book that allows you to forget that there is an actual plotline.

Still, things do come back together at the end to provide a satisfying resolution to these questions and to the main characters’ story arcs. The author could return to these characters if needed, but their story feels complete to me, though the setting itself clearly has more stories to tell. The author has written three other books, Clementine (Amazon, B&N), Dreadnought (Amazon, B&N), and Ganymede (Amazon, B&N), exploring other aspects of the “Clockwork Century” setting that she has created in this book, such as the prolonged Civil War in the east.

More on these other books in the weeks to come, though…

Other Steampunk Spotlight posts:

This review comes from the pages of Black Gate #15. It has been updated to reflect the subsequent publication of Ganymede.

Andrew Zimmerman Jones is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He has been a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest and received Honorable Mention in the 2011 Writer’s Digest Science Fiction/Fantasy Competition. In addition to being a contributing editor to Black Gate magazine, Andrew is the Physics Guide and author of String Theory For Dummies. You can follow his exploits on Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+.

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[…] of the biggest names in the steampunk sub-genre, starting mostly with her groundbreaking 2009 book Boneshaker that introduced most readers to “The Clockwork Century,” the alternate history […]

[…] book in the series. Basically, the plot twist at the end of Dreadnought is the entire premise of Boneshaker, as I’ll explain later in the review. (Spoiler-ish […]

[…] Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker […]

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