Author: Cherie Priest
I'll confess I haven't read straight prose in a while. As a child, my mother worked out a deal wherein I couldn't start reading until after I'd done my chores for the day; she knew that once I started, nothing could draw my attention away until I had gulped down the entire book. I can't exactly remember when I stopped reading like that -- probably around college, when all of my reading time was devoured by scholarly texts.
Whilst trolling the hallowed, color-coded rooms of Powell's, I picked up the book Boneshaker on the basis of its interesting cover: a dirty-faced, dark-haired woman wearing a pair of goggles with multiple lenses stares solemnly up at the sky. In one lens, we see the reflection of an airship. The whole thing seems to be done in oil paints, adding to the sense of grubbiness. In the upper-right hand corner of the cover, Scott Westerfield recommends the book with the description "A steampunk-zombie-airship adventure."
I will pause and let you absorb that.
Then I will add my own shrieking description: STEAMPUNK ZOMBIE AIRSHIP ALTERNATE-HISTORY MYSTERY-ADVENTURE STARRING A STRONG FEMALE PROTAGONIST SET IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST, AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!
It's as if someone looked into my soul and gently inquired if it would like to read a book again.
Boneshaker is the story of Briar Wilkes, a hard-bitten woman in her mid-thirties, and her 16-year-old son Zeke, who live in the Outskirts, an area that has grown up around the ruin of Seattle. The year is 1880, the Civil War has been dragging on for 12 years due to small nudges of historical happenstance (it's mentioned that Stonewall Jackson didn't die at Chancellorsville), and as a result Washington is still an isolated territory instead of a proper state. Unscrupulous prospectors have been seeking gold in the Klondike and building giant drills to get under the ice. One of these drills was Dr. Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine; its creator, Leviticus Blue, was (is?) an inventor of the kinds of gadgets one expects in a steampunk story.
Except something went horribly wrong with the engine -- or horribly right. 16 years back, it went haywire all through the underground of downtown Seattle, tearing up several bank vaults and caving in streets and buildings. Worse yet, though, it tapped into some secret underground vein of poisonous gas, which the characters call the Blight. The Blight turns people into "rotters," mindless undead who feel no pain and desire only to eat. A 200-foot wall was built to hold in this plague, and the Outskirts grew up around it.
In the aftermath Dr. Blue had disappeared, along with any hope of knowing his intentions. In his absence, much of the city's wrath has fallen on Blue's wife and child -- Briar and Zeke.
As the story opens, the ostracized Zeke has decided to go in search of proof that his father was innocent and that the whole thing was an accident. His quest takes him inside the Wall. The even-more ostracized Briar follows after him. On the way they encounter air pirates, an Indian princess who's handy with knives, hordes of the undead, and the sinister Dr. Minnericht, a crazy inventor and criminal overlord who bears some resemblence to Briar's dead(?) husband Levi.
The book's a little slow to get going, spending a hair too much time describing Briar and Zeke's miserable, poverty-stricken existence in the Outskirts. Once they get inside the Wall, though, Priest moves the narrative along at a brisk if zig-zagging pace. There are a lot of different players inside the Wall, all with motivations so crosswise to each other as to form a web into which Briar and Zeke both tumble. Minnericht is the spider at the center drawing them in.
Throughout the book, I had some difficulty picturing the environment through which the characters moved -- but methinks this was a deliberate move on Priest's part, as the interior of the Wall is filled with soupy Blight gas on top of the infamous greyness of Seattle's weather, and much of the action happens underground in tunnels that branch throughout the ruined city. All the characters wear masks to protect them from the Blight gas, and the descriptions might unsettle the claustrophobic among us.
I would complain that some of the characters in the story are underdeveloped, but I'm too delighted at the realization that all the underdeveloped characters are men, while the strong, fleshed-out ones are women: Lucy the mama-bear bar owner with her mechanical arms built to replace the flesh-and-bone ones that she lost to the rotters; Ms Angeline the aforementioned Indian princess who has her own vendetta against Minnericht; and above all, Briar Blue Wilkes.
Oh, Briar. I love her beyond words. Stubborn and strong and weary and unflappable and determined, Briar's as prickly as her name: she holds the world at arm's length, including her son. It's not out of lack of love...rather, because of it. Briar has many burdens, and the story is a process of peeling them slowly from her white-knuckled clutches. It isn't until the last pages that the final, crucial one is revealed, and her character wholly makes sense; but trust me, the wait is worth it. Zeke's a delight, too, brave and stupid in the way of young men, with his mother's stubborn spirit. He's a soul full of questions, and some of the answers he gets aren't too dandy; but he handles himself well in the end, and you get the sense that's just what Briar desperately needs.
In closing, there's a scene on page 382 that had me cackling with glee. In it, Lucy, Miss Angeline, and Briar meet. One woman has just killed dozens of rotters, one just cut a man's throat, and one just led a full-scale militia attack.
Lucy had found or fixed her crossbow, and it was affixed to her arm, ready to fire. She aimed it back at Angeline before she realized who she was. Then she brought it down and said, "Miz Angeline, what are -- ?" Finally, she saw Briar, and she almost laughed when she spoke the rest. "Ain't this a pairing? I swear and be damned. We don't have too many women down here inside the walls, but I sure wouldn't mess with the ones we've got."
Highly recommend this book, despite some flaws. I coulda done with more resolution at the end, but hey, that's what sequels are for. (And to the fandomites out there: check out the back cover for a laugh, there's a quote from one Cassandra Clare.)