Cherie Priest, Boneshaker

Cherie Priest, Boneshaker

I have to admit that as the years pass, I have less and less interest in speculative fiction. I, formerly a die-hard science fiction fan (and a die-hard fantasy fan before that) have lost patience with the choppy plots, extreme fixation on technical minutia, and near-complete lack of interesting female characters.

So perhaps you can appreciate what it takes to get me into a speculative fiction book these days. It takes overwhelming praise from every corner. It takes the promise of steampunk AND zombies. It takes a female author, who employs many strong female characters. And it takes an interesting look at a familiar setting.

In other words, it takes Cherie Priest's book Boneshaker.

(My first (and least momentous) quibble with Boneshaker is in the typesetting. The book is set in a sepia print, which is an interesting stylistic choice. But those of us with aging eyes greatly prefer the time-tested readability of black print.)

Boneshaker is set in an alternate history Seattle, round about the 1860s. Several years before, a mad inventor (Leviticus Blue) designed a giant earth-drilling machine as an attempt to win a bounty from the Russian government for the person who creates the first gold-digging machine for use in the Alaskan gold rush.

Unfortunately, this giant machine (the eponymous Boneshaker) goes nuts and drills a huge hole all the way from Blue's house on Denny Hill to the central business district. There it cracks open a bank, and also opens a vent in the earth which releases a yellow gas that turns people into zombies.

In order to protect the rest of the world from the zombie gas, they build a big wall around Seattle. (Thankfully the gas is heavier than air, and sinks.)

Fast forward to Leviticus' widow, Briar, and their now-teenage son Zeke. Zeke gets it into his head to cross the wall into poisoned Seattle to go looking for his father's house. Briar, when she comes home and finds Zeke missing, follows after to rescue him.

Seattle, walled off and filled with poisonous zombie gas (and zombies) as it is, still harbors a small population of criminals. At first it seemed to me that these were extraordinarily generous and helpful criminals, even given Briar's credentials. (She is the daughter of Doc Maynard, who in this reality is a kind of folk hero.) It later develops that everyone has their own, less noble motivations for helping her. Nevertheless, I felt this aspect of the book is the one that needed the most shoring up.

Briar and Zeke take their separate routes through Seattle, barely missing each other repeatedly, until the story comes to a head (as it surely must) in the lair of the mysterious and sinister Dr. Minnericht.

This was a satisfying and interesting read. Among other things, I greatly appreciated the book's many varied female characters, who have depth and human interest, and who are not just allowed by the author to do useful things, they collectively bear the plot forward on their shoulders. Would that there were more female-positive books in the speculative fiction racks; it might help woo me back.