I’m a sucker for steampunk. Ever since I discovered this fantasy aesthetic, which imagines worlds where technology took a detour in Victorian England, powered by steam and clockwork rather than oil and batteries, I’ve been in love with the romance of the subgenre. Add a little magic and a few dirigibles (no steampunk is complete without airships), and I’m yours.
I’m less enamored of the walking dead, but zombies of one form or another are fast becoming a staple of the genre. I blame Frankenstein, myself, though in the novels I’ve read the zombification has less to do with someone raising the dead than people turning into something less than living. Whatever the reason, the idea that some sort of undead plague is one of the inevitable side effects of steampunk is the driving factor of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker.
The story begins some sixteen years after the titular Boneshaker – a driver-operated drill – burrowed into a volcano and released the Blight – a poisonous gas that can turn people into ‘rotters.’ The release of the Blight forced the city of Seattle to be walled up – with people and zombies alike trapped inside.
Life isn’t much better for people on the Outskirts, who have to filter all water and frequently wear gas masks so as not to inhale the Blight fumes. One such woman is Briar Wilkes, a woman in her mid-thirties who lives with her disaffected teenage son Zeke in her childhood home. Her father, Maynard Wilkes, is dead before the start of the narrative, but is a looming presence nonetheless. Respected in the less savory parts of the city for his devotion to the law, his memory is tarnished by his part in the jailbreak that occurred just after the Blight.
Briar is also shunned due to her status as the widow of Leviticus “Levi” Blue, the designer and operator of the Boneshaker, the bastard responsible for the Blight. Only Zeke thinks there might have been something redeemable about his father, which sends him inside the walled city to get proof. Getting in is easier than getting out, and Briar is forced to go in after him, finding herself in a world where being Maynard Wilkes’ girl has its advantages, and society is under the thumb of the mysterious Dr. Minnericht, who may or may not be her dead husband.
All in all it’s an enjoyable read, with a good pace and plenty of zombie action for those who like that sort of thing. The book’s weakness is its protagonists. Briar and Zeke share the role of point-of-view character with chapters alternating between them, but they’re both rather 2-dimensional, passive stand-ins for the reader. Ultimately I didn’t care about either of them, and was more invested in the supporting cast, particularly the one-armed barkeep Lucy O’Grunning, and ancient Native American princess Miss Angeline.
The plotting was strong and the ‘twist’ at the end, while not exactly shocking, was well-foreshadowed, so that I felt vindicated rather than disappointed at the reveal. Priest manages to maintain the suspicion throughout the novel, so that not until the climax are you really sure whether or not Dr. Minnericht and Levi Blue are one in the same.