Cherie Priest seems to be the queen of steampunk today, or at least there seems to be an expectation that she’ll be anointed such, even though she’s apparently pushing her novel Boneshaker and its setting as alternate history rather than steampunk (though, really, it’s both). Other than my fondness for Girl Genius (which is mainly due to my being a slavering fanboy of Phil Foglio), I’ve never gotten into the genre of steampunk: Neither the punk nor the cyberpunk aesthetics were my thing, I have no particular interest in 19th century fashion, technology or culture (steampunk seems to have a very strong fashion/costuming element in it), and all-in-all I’d rather be reading far-future SF than recent-past SF. Still, I do have a weakness for alternate history, and we read Boneshaker for a book discussion group. Plus it’s up for the Hugo Award for best novel.
The flavor of steampunk these days seems to be dirigibles, which are present in Boneshaker, but more to seem cool than to serve a significant role in the story. The story’s backdrop is that in 1863 an inventor named Leviticus Blue created a huge drill to aid in exploiting the gold rush, but something went horribly wrong, the drill destroyed big chunks of Seattle, and also somehow unleashed a gas which seeped into the city and turned people into zombies. The government walled up the city, but a few citizens remained living outside the walls. Blue disappeared, presumed dead, and his widow, Briar, moved back to the house of her father, Maynard Wilkes, himself a man of some note, although he died during the initial release of the gas as well. Years later, in 1880, Briar’s teenage son, Zeke, gets it into his mind to go into the city and gather evidence to prove that Blue wasn’t really responsible for the disaster, and Briar follows him into Seattle to save him. Within the walls they discover a town flooded by blight gas and populated by starving zombies, but also by a few stubborn humans who live in sealed-away buildings and basements, where the two get caught up in the ongoing power struggle within the city.
Priest has meticulously crafted her world (which she’s named The Clockwork Century), with the Civil War still ongoing in the east after 30 years, and the west even more of a hardscrabble frontier than it was at the time. But the book’s setting seems more calculated for effect than anything else. That Seattle is still populated doesn’t make much sense, as I’d expect most people would have cleared out (likely heading to another city farther north) as there’s really nothing for them here except some bad memories. Briar in particular I’d think would have headed far away. There are a few rationalizations for why there’s still a town outside the walls, but I wasn’t convinced.
There is some neat stuff here: The humans inside the city have carefully sealed off living spaces, and the Chinese population are responsible for operating pumps which import fresh air from above the wall, to keep everyone able to breathe. There’s a mysterious Doctor Minnericht who creates fantastic devices which help people survive, and which also keep them beholden to him. Briar and Zeke encounter various eccentric characters who have been playing out their own little dramas within the walls, all of which come to a head when Minnericht stands in the way of Briar and Zeke getting what they want. Compared to this, the airships are downright mundane, serving little role in the book other than to provide a means to escape the city.
The core problem, though, is that story itself is slight, being not much more than a travelogue of the inside of the city. Yes, events develop so that there’s a big shootout at the end, at the book is a page-turner at times. But characterization is slim: Neither Briar nor Zeke really have a story arc, and they’re the main characters in the story. We do eventually learn some of the secrets in Briar’s past, but they’re added almost as an afterthought, as if Priest felt that once the main story was done she should tidy up a few loose ends in case anyone cares, but those revelations were what kept me reading, as the battles among the residents of the city felt like just an obstacle to the characters getting to the good stuff. And other than Zeke becoming closer to his mother when he sees what she risked for him, the characters don’t really change or grow. The supporting characters are quirky but not deep. The story is a lot of running around and agonizing, but the payoff didn’t justify it for me.
While Priest is a fine wordsmith, and her characters’ names are themselves quite evocative, overall I found Boneshaker disappointing, a little too long to be carried by its ideas content, and without enough heft to its characters or plot to feel really satisfying.