Book Review: Boneshaker
Published by Tor
Ezekiel Blue’s father committed a crime, unleashing a deadly menace into steam-powered Seattle. And his bereaved family has paid the price. Now, Ezekiel is determined to clear his father’s name, risking death and the undead in the attempt.
Sixteen years ago, gold brought hordes to the frozen Klondike. Fanatical in their greed, Russian prospectors commissioned Dr Leviticus Blue to create a machine to mine Alaska’s ice. Thus the Incredible bone-Shaking Drill Engine was born. But the Boneshaker went awry, destroying downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas. Anyone who breathed its fumes turned into the living dead.
The devastated city is now walled in to contain the blight. But unknown to Briar, his widowed mother, Ezekiel is going in. His quest will take him into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.
I do love a bit of steampunk every now and then. It promises adventure, often with lashings of swashbuckle (and we all know how much I love a swashbuckling adventure). I actually hadn’t heard of Cherie Priest before, and I’ll admit that I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Boneshaker tells the story of Briar and Ezekiel, a mother and son, who are shunned thanks to the previous misdemeanours of Briar’s husband, Leviticus Blue. And when I say misdemeanour, I mean a huge, horrendous, devastating mistake (or deliberate attack).
But Ezekiel (Zeke) is young, and doesn’t remember his father, and Briar is reluctant to tell him anything of that previous life. So he returns to the ruins of Seattle to find answers.
The walled Seattle is full of the toxic gas known as the Blight, which turns victims in to the walking dead (I love me some zombies), as well as ragtag bands of highly complicated and dangerous people living underground, and the mysterious and terrifying Dr Minnericht.
This is a pacy and frantic novel, slipping between Young Adult and hardcore steampunk, making it a strangely accessible read for anyone – whether they are new to the genre or not. Briar is a compelling protagonist, although this is dampened by the weaknesses of Zeke as a character; he is left as a slightly two-dimensional act, slow to catch on and ineffective when called upon. He only perks up when looking for Briar towards the end of the novel. Briar, on the other hand, has plenty of attitude and dominates the pages, even when she isn’t present.
I don’t know the real Seattle, but I’m not sure you need to in this case, because Priest paints such a vivid picture of the rotten streets of her own Seattle. She brushes lightly over the dramatic events sixteen years previously, only adding them in when needed, which gives the book a real-time feel – the lightness of backstory gives it the immediacy that an adventure novel requires.
It’s reassuring to see the presence of the strong female characters that drive the narrative forward – they dwarf the plot, in very much a good way. Lucy and the Princess are sassy and tough and you instantly warm to them – you look forward to coming across them, and they are written in style. Other characters, like Rudy and Yaozu, are barely described, and they feel like secondary occurrences that could have been left out.
And there is a fair amount that could have been left out, I feel. Some scenes felt like extra flourishes, and the dialogue could have been trimmed to something more immediate and staccato to reflect the pace of the action. It felt clunky sometimes, and the constant switching between Briar and Zeke sometimes felt overplayed – rather than chapter by chapter, there were times when I wanted to stay with one or the other for a bit longer and really draw out the action.
The final dramatic turn is well played. It’s fast and confused and drops you in the centre with no warning and little explanation. Just how an adventure should happen. It’s not to say without its faults – Priest’s habit of skimming over the backstory falls flat here and actually a bit more detail could have been better used. Instead, she waits until after the final battle to use all that pent-up explanation in a burst of around 5 pages, which is a soft splat of an ending.
For a story that is entertaining and engaging throughout, this ending is a bit of a belly flop. More of a “and they all lived happily ever after” than a genuine round-up of events. The instant forgiveness and satisfaction of questions was too simplified, and although she answers many of the questions of the book (which could have been left out again for added drama) she leaves others unanswered or unsatisfied. From an enjoyable adventure story, this ending lets it down.
As an opening to a series (which this is) it makes a strong start, but the weakness of the ending makes me wonder about the rest of it. The characters are compelling enough to make me investigate, but this is not a series I would invest in.