Published September 29, 2009
Reviewed September 22, 2010
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I was a heavy fantasy gamer for many years, proudly bearing the mantle of Dungeon Master in college and hosting countless tabletop strategy games in my basement rather than attending most high school events. One of the most frequently played was a Games Workshop turn-based strategy game called “Mordheim,” where players controlled warbands scouring through a medieval city devastated by a massive meteor. Inhabited by mercenaries, mutants and the undead, it was a setting that contained countless stories, with ruined Gothic buildings full of ten fatal missteps for every piece of treasure.
I mention this chiefly to give some context as to why I enjoyed Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker” so much, as the world it paints was comfortably close to my best gaming memories. Behind the walls of a corroded city, refugees and mad scientists scavenge enough to make a living, conflicting daily with gangrenous zombies in a manner that hits the high notes of a nuanced roleplaying gameworld. And the fact that this setting complements well fleshed-out characters and cinematic action certainly didn’t hurt, all combining to make “Boneshaker” one of the most enjoyable and energetic titles in recent memory.
The walled-off metropolis in question is Seattle, Washington of 1880, a city literally eaten away from the inside. Trying to invent a machine that could be used for mining gold in the frozen north, Leviticus Blue created the Boneshaker, a massive drilling contraption capable of tunneling with great force – as Seattle’s residents discovered when its trial run cut a devastating swath under the streets. It not only collapsed buildings and killed dozens but unleashed a mysterious deadly gas known as the Blight, turning its victims into “rotters” who rose from their graves and devoured the flesh of the living. Unable to do more than contain the Blight, residents walled Seattle’s downtown off, creating a ghost town choked with rotters and poisonous yellow gas.
Now sixteen years later, Blue’s widow Briar Wilkes has been trying to make a living for herself and her son Ezekiel (“Zeke”) outside the walls, doing her best to keep the past buried. Zeke however has reached the age where he’s seeking real answers, and in typical teenager fashion decides to seek them out himself. When he makes the decision to venture into the city and learn the truth about his father, it falls to Briar to bring him home from the mix of rotters, raiders and long-dormant secrets that are locked behind Seattle’s wall.
That description only touches on what’s going on in “Boneshaker,” which is nothing if not ambitious in its content. The book has its footing firmly in the steampunk world – clean air is pumped into the city by massive tubes, airships farm the Blight gas for raw drug materials – but it’s also aiming to sweep several other genres in. Alternate history comes in with the fact that the Civil War spans two decades and counting thanks to foreign involvement and technical advancements, and several of its characters have been driven west by dark pasts tied to that conflict. And with packs of decayed rotters coming in every few chapters, moaning and swarming in packs, the book is also striving for zombie atmosphere in the traditional Romero fashion.
All of these influences working together could easily make a book unwieldy (see “Android Karenina” for a key example) but “Boneshaker” manages to make its disparate elements work surprisingly well together. Priest never sacrifices the narrative’s flow for the sake of showing off, and even when the introduction of new elements seems abrupt – such as airships or a cybernetic hand – they quickly give way to explaining the history and motivations of the characters who possess them. Even when characters are covered in full suits of armor, using sonic cannons to blast away swarming rotters, it’s not possible to lose sight of who’s inside the armor and how they wound up in that position.
A large part of this has to do with the book’s unswerving focus on the relationship between Briar and Zeke, and fantastical elements aside this is an incredibly solid depiction of a single mother raising a stubborn son. The relationship is defined early in a tense debate over Zeke’s heritage, and for the majority of the book the chapters alternate between Briar and Zeke’s journeys through the city, a technique “Boneshaker” expertly uses to expand their traits. Briar is reminiscent of Frances McDormand in “North Country,” a woman who bears the pressures and prejudices of a tough world – but with the spine to take out anything that gets between her and her son. Zeke is perfectly characterized as a petulant teenager, the sort who thinks he knows everything but whose bravado comes up short against the real world.
And both characters are readily tested in the unforgiving ruins of Seattle, which give rise to a series of wonderful scenes that play out for the reader as smoothly as if they were on screen. Both Briar and Zeke seem to find themselves in a life-or-death situation every chapter, and in each case the writing is tight enough to pull the reader from scene to scene with just the right amount of detail. The scenes where Briar is confronting the rotters have all the oppressive tension of the best zombie movies, particularly when she realizes one of her traveling companions might have taken one breath of Blight too many. And on Zeke’s side of the action, an airship that might take him home ends up taking him back down in the most dramatic fashion, and every bump and knock comes through.
But the best sign of “Boneshaker’s” success isn’t just the scenes it depicts – it’s drawing the reader into its characters and world so well that they want to hear more stories told. Priest is already planning to oblige by expand this world into its own universe dubbed “The Clockwork Century” – the second volume “Dreadnought” is in fact set for release next week – and the promise of following this first volume even tangentially is enough to keep going. “Boneshaker” is an ambitious, detailed and utterly rewarding novel, and it burrows into the reader’s interest every bit as deep as the titular machine.