Its late 19th Century Seattle. The gold rush of the Klondike a couple of decades earlier meant that the city was large and growing when inventor Leviticus Blue’s magnum opus due too greedily and too deep, releasing a gas that turns those who breathe it too deeply into the walking dead. Those bitten or injured by those same walking dead join their ranks, too. With there no end to the Blight Gas, most of Seattle is walled off, with survivors huddled outside, and some desperate souls still trying to make a life for themselves inside, struggling with the walking dead and each other. And, far away, the American Civil War rages on, two decades after its start.
The widow of the creator of that inventor, making a hardscrabble living on the outskirts of Seattle, is drawn to face the consequences of her husband’s actions, and perhaps her missing husband himself, when her son is drawn to explore the dangerous world beyond the wall. She can’t let him go into Seattle alone, of course . And so she finds her own way into Seattle, in search of her son…
The fantastic world of Boneshaker is definitely not our own.
Boneshaker is the first of the Clockwork Century novels by Cherie Priest, and was nominated for Best Novel at the 2010 Hugo Awards, ultimately coming in third place.
It’s not hard to see why it was nominated and why Boneshaker is considered one of the seminal works of the subgenre of SF known as Steampunk. Airships. Check. Steampunk aesthetics, from dusters to gas mask chic. Check. Plenty of strange and wonderful clockwork and Steampunk technology, ranging from the eponymous Boneshaker to unusual weapons to mechanical limbs. Check.
Boneshaker, however, is more than all of this. The author’s work deftly has a footprint in a wide swath of subgenres and motifs of genre fiction, and she juggles it all very well indeed. With a teenage protagonist as one of the two primary viewpoint characters, and a coming of age story for him, the book has YA ties. I know if I was two and a half decades younger, I would have strongly identified with Ezekiel Wilkes, who defies his mother and sneaks into Seattle to find out the truth of his Father.
The mother chasing after her errant son gives off a whiff of family-based adventure, and with a lot of running around tunnels and climbing to escape the Blight. At many points, I was reminded of computer games such as Half-Life 2 as well as paper role playing games, and I wonder, now, if Ms. Priest is or was a gamer. The narrative and lines of the game certainly give off the feeling that she was influenced by that.
The main characters of Briar and Ezekiel have a believable dynamic and complexity to them. These two and their plots are the heart and breath of the novel. The secondary characters are an interesting assortment. While a couple don’t seem to come off as well as others, they are a motley lot for the main characters to bounce off against and each other.
The plot is deceptively simple as I have mentioned above. But there are intersecting plots that Briar and Ezekiel stumble across, around and through that we get only pieces of, including a stolen airship, and a conflict between factions within Seattle. This does give the universe of Boneshaker an organic feel, the characters other than Briar and Ezekiel do not exist merely for the main characters business. They have lives of their own.
As far as the writing, Priest keeps the narrative humming right along. The reveals make sense, and one question that had gnawed me in the last act of the book was satisfactorily answered. As far as the dialogue and the description, the characters do not feel like modern transplants into an alternate 19th century. It’s an engaging prose style she uses. For instance, as she tries to arrange passage over the wall to find her missing son:
He took his time answering her. While he decided, he looked her up and down in a way that wasn’t altogether offensive, but wasn’t too flattering, either. He was thinking about something, and thinking about it hard; and Briar didn’t know what it was, or how he’d guessed so easily, or if Maynard could help her now.
“You should’ve started with that,” Andan said.
“With how you’re Maynard’s girl. Why didn’t you?”
She said, “Because to claim him as my father marks me as Blue’s widow. I didn’t know if the cost would outweigh the benefit.”
“Fair enough,” he said. And he stood.
It took him a few seconds. There was a lot of him to stand.
By the time he was on his feet, underneath the belly of the Naamah Darling, he stood taller than any man Briar had ever seen in her life. Seven and a half feet from toes to top and thickly muscled, Andan Cly was more than simply huge. He was terrifying. He was not an attractive man to begin with, but when his plain, workman looks were combined with his sheer size, it was all Briar could do not to run.
“You afraid of me now?” he asked. He pulled a pair of gloves out of his pockets and stretched them over his huge hands.
“Should I be afraid of you?” she asked.
He snapped the second glove into place and bent over to pick up his bottle. “No,” he told her. His eyes shifted to her buckle again. “Your daddy used to wear that.”
“He wore a lot of things.”
“He didn’t get buried in all of them.” Andan held out his hand to her and she shook it. Her fingers rattled around in the cavern of his grasp. “You’re welcome aboard the Naamah Darling, Miss Wilkes. Maybe I’m doing wrong in taking you—it might not be the right way to pay an old debt, since I’m a little scared I’m going to get you killed—but you’re going to get inside one way or another, aren’t you?”
“Then best I can do is get you ready, I suppose.” He kicked a thumb up at the boilers and said, “The thrusters will be hot before long. I can take you up and over.”
“For … for an old debt?”
“It’s a big old debt. I was there in the station, when the Blight shut down the world. Me and my brother, we carried your dad back home. He didn’t have to do it.” He was shaking his head again. “He didn’t owe us a thing. But he let us out, and now, Miss Wilkes, if you won’t have it any other way … I’m going to let you in.”
Are there weaknesses? Well, there are a few to my mind. A couple of turns of plot seem awfully convenient, and the asynchronous time frame between Briar’s storyline and Ezekiel’s storyline is disorienting at best, and not in a useful fashion. It wasn’t always clear how far behind or ahead one character or another was in the timeline, which keeps the reader from fully understanding
There is an air of mad implausible impracticality to the whole setup. Even though there is evidence that the Blight gas is useful, I still really don’t get why the population, especially those in the Outskirts outside the Wall, don’t simply move to a more hospitable clime. Really, life is so miserable in this Steampunk twisted Seattle that I am surprised that there is such a large remnant population.
I am also not convinced by the two decade long American Civil War. I’m not sure it passes the Will Shetterly test of a plausible Alternate History, but in this novel, it’s really mostly distant background.
Despite those weaknesses, Boneshaker is one of the seminal books of modern Steampunk, with dollops, dashes and additions from a lot of other camps as well. It is no surprise to me that the novel was nominated for a Hugo award, and no surprise that the author has written several more Clockwork Century novels. The prose is very good, and the author keeps the focus on the action. Whenever things seem to flag, Ms. Priest adds genre-appropriate ninjas to keep the plot humming.
As far as those other Clockwork Century novels, I think I am going to have to check them out. In the meantime, for you, I think Boneshaker stands as a good representative novel if you want to venture into the still growing Duchy of Steampunk.