Friday, March 18, 2011

Boneshaker Blends Flavors, Adds Adventure

At first glance, Cherie Priest's Boneshaker seems a genre lover's book. Nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula, it blends alternate history with wonky steampunk and ravenous zombies. Such an odd combination reminded me of nothing more than one of my wife's favorite meals -- peanut butter, mayonnaise and pickles on two slices of fresh bread. In other words, it sounded like an odd taste that would only appeal to a narrow demographic. So it surprised me when the lover of strange sandwiches and literary romances in my household devoured Priest's novel whole.

Briar Wilkes' name has become a byword in Seattle and that's because she once went by a different moniker. The Civil War has stretched on for over 16 years, but no amount of bloodshed can erase what Briar's husband Leviticus Blue did to the city at the conflict's start. Commissioned by Russians to build a machine that could bore into Alaskan ice in search of gold, Letiticus created Dr. Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine. The contraption worked, all right, only on its test run it barreled underneath Seattle's four largest banks, excavating their vaults -- and accidentally tapping a hidden reservoir of Blight gas. The vapors killed many, transformed others into ravening undead and forced the survivors to erect a 200-foot-high wall that stands to this very day. It's a wall that Briar's teenage son Ezekiel has just scuttled underneath in a vain hunt for the truth about his father's misdeeds. Now Briar must brave the Blight, shambling rotters and a cutthroat criminal underworld in order to save her only child.

Boneshaker appears exotic at first glance, an unconventional spec-fic treat. That's why it surprised me that my wife (who generally dislikes science fiction and its ilk) enjoyed it. When I asked her why, she said, "Well, I don't know about all the strange stuff, but it reads to me like an adventure." She's right. Yes, Boneshaker has zombies and airships, but they duck behind the narrative curtain as often as they strut the stage. Much of the action centers instead on two people trying to overcome external challenges so they can be together, a summary that could serve as the skeleton for all sorts of stories. That may disappoint genre fans. Also, some breaks in point of view and plotting distract. (In an author's note, Priest writes, "Thank you for suspending your disbelief for a few hundred pages. I realize that the story is a bit of a twisted stretch.") But Boneshaker is a fun read even if it's not quite the steampunk magnum opus we might have come to expect.

(Picture: CC 2007 by


AidanF said...

I haven't read Boneshaker, but I did read Priest's novella, Clementine. It strays less into multiple-genre realms (at least it avoids the Zombies). It was an enjoyable read.

I don't feel like I have a good handle on steampunk (I have actor friends in the steampunk scene, but that gives me a sense of style that doesn't seem to necessarily be required to be steampunk). I enjoyed the alternate history aspects of the story, but largely because it set up a good frame for the central chase-story & showdown.

Loren Eaton said...

I might have to check it out. I bet my wife would love it. She's going through some Charlene Harris right now.

Myself, I haven't read a lot of steampunk either. I did read The Difference Engine, which is both fascinating and frustrating in equal measures.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Steampunk is, as far as I can tell, a mixed bag. Early stuff like The Difference Engine teends to be dark and brooding, like cyberpunk. Later stuff seems to realize that Victorian technology is pretty and looks like art designed for humans; a lot of the steampunk fashion is based on quasi-Victorian (intentionally quasi) DIY mentality.

The books, though...go in more directions than either the earlier stuff or the odd subculture. Priest is great; for a more adventurous version, you could check out Scott Westerfield's recklessly steampunkified rewriting of WWI, with Franz Ferdinand's son as a protagonist.

Personally, I have a taste for light, contemporary steampunk--the type that feels vaguely Jules-Vernish. But then, Cherie Priest doesn't write that, and her books are my favorite that fall into the category.

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, I'm not sure steampunk is fully defined as a genre yet. I mean, there are some recognizable traits, but it feels pretty loose to me. The Difference Engine read as though Gibson and Sterling had done a ton of historical research but had forgotten to add in a plot.