Thursday, June 3, 2010

Review: Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

This post was originally written for, but GD Falksen was given the job so it means I get to post it here instead! Proper analysis forthcoming.

Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is currently considered a sort of keynote in the steampunk movement – Mike Perschon, in his “Steampunk Tribes” article, names steampunks new to the subculture “Boneshakers” as a hat tip to this novel. Most steampunks have at least heard of Boneshaker, if not read it yet. On the cover, Scott Westerfeld describes it as a “steampunk-zombie-airship adventure,” and we all know that anything is improved with zombies.

     Boneshaker is the story of Briar Wilkes and her son Ezekiel, living on the Outskirts beyond the wall that now surrounds downtown Seattle. The widow of the inventor who built the titular engine that destroyed much of Seattle and released the zombie-causing Blight into the world, Briar lives with the consequences of her husband’s actions, shunned by the general populace but getting by even with a teenage son to support.

     Her son, Ezekiel, runs with a crowd that gives him marginal respect because of the heroism exhibited by his grandfather, Briar’s father, when the Blight first hit. Sixteen and angry at the treatment his mother receives for the actions of his missing father, he decides to head into the heart of the Blight-infected to find the house where his parents lived in, seeking evidence of his father’s innocence.

     Briar is realistically characterized as a tired mother, too exhausted to be an attentive parent, too angry to be speak much about her dead husband and father, but working her damnedest to raise a son on minimum wage. As soon as Briar cottons to the notion that her son is missing, she ups and hunts down the pertinent information, and when an earthquake occurs that blocks off the only entrance her son could have used, she preps and arms herself to enter the walls by any means.

     There, mother and son find themselves aided by various people with various intentions, ranging from genuine kindness to avarice, influenced by the actions of the dead men whose actions are still felt even after sixteen years. Briar falls in with Cly, repaying a debt to her father, Lucy O’Gunning, one-armed proprietress of Maynard’s, and Jeremiah Swakhammer, large and armed with a weapon that stuns rotters. Zeke bounces between Rudy, a lone eccentric, Miss Angeline, a Native hunter, and air pirates. All of these residents live in fear of Doctor Minnericht, a shadowy scientist who invents mechanisms that allow the residents to survive within the walls and sells the drugs developed from the Blight gas.

     The story alternates each chapter, or every two chapters, between Ezekiel’s and Briar’s perspectives, both arcs occasionally meeting the same people at different times, eventually culminating in their reunion. The story-telling voice remains consistent throughout, describing the surroundings clearly, whether it’s a run-down building, or underground furnace, or well-built refurbished train station. Cherie Priest doesn’t use high-flown language, bringing the story down to the average reader’s level in a way that is accessible even to non-techies like yours truly. Even with the consistent voice, the limited third-person perspectives get down deep enough for the reader to really know Briar and Ezekiel, whilst still painting sympathetic portraits of the other characters.

     Boneshaker has a great cast, diverse not just in archetype and turned tropes, but in race and gender types, and even more notable, realistic character interactions. There is a conclave of Chinamen running the furnaces that make the air breathable, who stick to themselves, and are hated or feared by the white residents, despite the English-speaking exceptions. Miss Angeline is a Native woman, referred to as “the princess”, which she clarifies: “I’m a princess. And I’m mad as hell right now.” Her skin colour is noted, but this adds to her characterization, without taking over.

     There is a distinct post-apocalyptic flavour to the novel, even as it is set in the 1800s, since the events occur after a catastrophe. (Every so often, I expected the Ink Spots’ Maybe, theme song of Fallout 1, to start playing.) As Cherie Priest notes at the end of the book, many of the actual events that are referred to in the book happened much later than in actuality. The population is larger than it really was (look, without a sizable number of zombies, it wouldn’t have been half as fun) and of course, as with all good steampunk stories, the technology is far more advanced than reality permits, though still within reasonable limits. Even with the tweaks, some serious research went into the writing, and it shows.

Boneshaker is a fairly straightforward story about truth and love, but the treatment of these themes are not typical for adventures: Ezekiel’s search for the truth is for identity and history, vindication for the suffering his mother undergoes for hiding her truth, and the love that drives them both is the interactive kind between parent and child so often taken for granted, or twisted into dysfunction.

     Cherie Priest could have given us a story of convoluted plots and twists, but the simplicity of the plot lends strength to all its other elements. As a result, we have a powerful story with strong protagonists, a well-built setting, and page-turning writing.

     Dreadnought, set in the same century, will be released this September. Look out for it, folks!

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