Shiny Shelf

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

By Julio Angel Ortiz on 05 January 2010

Steampunk. Alternate history. Airships. Zombies.

What right do these things have to exist in the same novel? Cherie Priest makes a good case for it in her most recent novel, ‘Boneshaker’. Taking place in Seattle, in a world where the American Civil War has dragged on for well over a decade and the inner city has been walled off to contain not only a blight of a sickly gas, but also the poor reanimated victims who succumbed to it.

The story focuses on Briar Wilkes, whose deceased husband is held responsible for unleashing the blight via one of his inventions, the eponymous drilling machine/vehicle, and her son Zeke, who desperately wishes to find redemption for his father’s name. The fallout of the events caused by the Boneshaker have left Briar and Wilkes living a trapped, meager existence and disliked by the local population.

When Zeke undertakes a dangerous journey beyond the inner walls when he believes he can find a way to improve their means and prove his father innocent, Briar desperately tries to reach him in time before he falls prey to the horrors that await him… and the undead may be the least of her worries.

Priest excels at establishing the idiosyncrasies and nuances of this familiar world. She does a good job of not only establishing details (such as the ongoing Civil War), but also their effects on the story’s characters. Through their dealings with each other and their environments, Priest makes sure these details have a subtle impact on the story. Briar and Zeke want to start over and head east, but the war prevents this.

The weariness of the war is apparent in a number of characters, particularly the airship crews Briar winds up interacting with. These touches help vividly establish this alternate United States and make it come to life for the reader.

On a smaller scale, Priest does a great job of bringing this version of Seattle to life, particularly once we are inside the walls and privy to who and what has survived, both above and underground. The locales spring to life, and the research Priest discusses in her notes at the end of the book really pays off.

Priest deserves credit for providing a different type of protagonist in Briar. Not much of a heroine, Briar is a realistic character: rough, strong-willed, lacking in sentimentality. Briar loves her son but is weathered by the events of her life; as such, she fails to show much emotion towards him. However, her dedication and love is unquestioned. In a way, Briar is interesting as a character because she is somewhat unlikeable and rustic, far from being a cliched female lead in a novel. Priest fleshes her out in lovely fashion.

Zeke does not get the same treatment, although this could be because he is a teenager who does, well, teenager things: acting impulsively, skittish around elders, and easily lead around. His characterization is not bad, but there is distinct a gap between how these two are presented.

The plot in ‘Boneshaker’ moves along at a fine clip for a good chunk of the novel. The majority of the story is split into two threads, following Briar and Zeke on their individual quests. Of the two, Briar’s is the more interesting, due to the interactions with the crew of the airship and her first foray within the walls. That is not to say that Zeke’s tale is a snoozer; far from it, but it is also the more predictable. It boils down to a series of unfortunate events; Zeke falls in with the wrong crowd more than once, and is swept along by the plot until the two stories intersect late in the novel. There is a lot of running around and chases, which are fine, but it never seems like Zeke does much of importance until late in the novel. Briar’s tale is also more colorful due to the cast of characters she comes across.

There are a few issues with ‘Boneshaker’. The biggest was that the story loses its way after the 3/4 mark; without giving much away, there is a big battle that erupts that comes off as abrupt. There are subtle hints throughout the novel at how such an event would occur, but the actual arrival is jarring.

Also abrupt is the re-appearance of a character who goes missing half-way through, only to reappear near the end and close to death (and subsequently dies in the same scene). Aside from tying up a small loose end, his reappearance could have easily skipped without any detriment to the story.

One cannot help but wonder if there was large amount of editing that went on during the last quarter of the novel and a decent amount of material was left out. The latter section of ‘Boneshaker’ feels rushed, and while it does not kill the novel, it’s something to note.

And then there are the zombies. Instead of slow, shambling things, these undead are capable of moving pretty fast. Not too much time is spent examining the zombies; in fact, if you are looking for a ton of undead action in ‘Boneshaker’, you will be disappointed. They are used, but are kept in the shadows at first and their presence is felt more than seen during the course of the novel. Arguments can be made for or against this; it adds to the atmosphere of dread within the walled area, and it prevents them from being simple one-trick scares. I thought Priest put them to good use here, but others may disagree.

‘Boneshaker’ is a fun, unique ride. Priest establishes an interesting sandbox to play in, offers realistic characters in horrifying situations, and adeptly provides a horror-tinged mood to a deep, fascinating world. Priest does not hit all the marks in ‘Boneshaker’, but it will entertain you enough to get you to the end, and that’s what good writing does.

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By Julio Angel Ortiz

Julio Angel Ortiz maintains his collection of curiosities at You can also Like him on Facebook as well and check out his latest writing projects.

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