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 JenWaller)