In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus was Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine born.But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes. Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenaged boy to support, but she and Ezekiel are managing. Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history.His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.
I will put my hand up and admit: I bought Boneshaker for the cover alone. I know, I know, I’m fickle. I was going to read it too, but initially it was for the cover only…and then I started reading it over breakfast and then I had to retire to the lounge and lie on the couch and the next thing I knew it was quarter past six and Mark was home going: “Where’s my food, woman?” (at this point I rang Dominos so I could continue reading).
Boneshaker was one of 2009’s most anticpated novels. It was a genre-mash-up. Steampunk and zombies with a bit of fantasy, a bit of western and a bit of sci-fi thrown in for good measure. I genuinely didn’t think it was going to work but then I didn’t really reckon with Ms. Priest’s writerly prowess. It’s sickening to see how easy she makes it all seem.
Her characters are richly depicted with the main character Briar (once known as Briar Blue, having been married to Leviticus Blue) being wonderfully enigmatic and flawed. When we first meet Briar we know only the rumours about her, who she used to be, but even that is hazy. It’s as if we learn about Briar by looking in a badly speckled mirror – there is taint where there maybe shouldn’t be. Her relationship with her young son, Zeke (Ezekiel) is strained. It makes for interesting reading, as we walk with her through the house her father had owned before the Blight, and she hesitates going into Zeke’s room as she’s not ever been in there, is such a explicit moment because we learn so much about this intensely private woman, that it made my eyes water.
Zeke is one of life’s good guys with a penchant for hanging around with bad guys and who is destined to get into trouble. He’s a clever kid, he wants answers to the questions he’s almost too afraid to ask his mother. Was his father genuinely the destroyer of Seattle, was his grandfather really the guy who broke prisoners out during the Blight and set them free and if so, surely there’s more to the story than just that? There are these questions he wants answered, and more. So he runs off to the city within the walls, hoping to find answers.
Boneshaker is at it’s heart a deeply emotional story about family and the lies we tell to keep everything neat and tidy, without thinking about the repercussions. It’s about trying to find the truth and facing up to your past. It’s also how people can lie and deceive in the wake of an awful disaster and how quickly lies and half-truths can spread in Chinese whispers, poisoning others.
Ms. Priest’s writing is engaging. I had no idea I had torn through the book at such a rapid pace. I felt that she had done great work with her supporting cast and enjoyed the overall world she had created. The setting of Seattle is new to me (I only know modern day Seattle from seeing it on TV and reading about it in books) so I genuinely didn’t mind that she had taken liberties with its history etc. I found it very interesting how subtly she used the dialogue to indicate time (era) as well as the various characters’ upbringing. It’s clever and handled well so that I only became aware of it part-way through the book.
Briar’s quest to find her son after he disappears into the walled off city rife with “rotters”is such a desperately wild and brave act, I loved her for it. A completely different world, with very much different, almost older, set of values exist on the other side of the wall. For sixteen years the people living inside the walls of the old Seattle have battled amongst themselves and the rotters. Those on the Outskirts (outside the wall) live dull lives, struggling to make ends meet whilst the Civil War continued to rage seemingly unabated for far longer than in Real History. Briar herself works in a water-purifying plant and it’s hard grueling work. In between reading Boneshaker, you can close your eyes, and you can feel the oppressiveness of the world created, the muted colours of rusts, greys and browns getting under your skin.
Overall you have a very different type of book on your hands. Ms. Priest is a very good writer, keeping the narrative tight and interesting. The world is explained easily, you quickly become familiar with its various quirks and although you know that things are moving ahead very quickly, the writing never feels rushed.
I enjoyed Boneshaker and will recommend it to readers who are keen to dip their toes into something slightly different. The steampunk elements are there but they are in the background and character and plot is king in the novel and reigns supreme, and to be honest, this works really well for me as I’m in theory a techie, I can’t stand techie-writings and descriptions.
Find Cherie Priest’s website here and the official website for the world Cherie's created titled The Clockwork Century here. Boneshaker is out now and should be available for purchase online (as I don’t think a UK publisher has picked it up yet).