Wednesday, March 24, 2010
The Bookshelf: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
I heard about BONESHAKER when the author, Cherie Priest, was interviewed on WAR ROCKET AJAX- that was some time ago, and I had a devil of a time tracking the damn thing down; in fact I’d say I spent more time trying to find it than reading it actually took. Even though the book runs some 400 pages, they go by fast. Even though it takes place against an elaborate alt-history steampunk backdrop, in which an attempt to build a better mining machine turned the population of downtown Seattle into flesheating zombies, the story is rather ingeniously boiled down to a mother and son searching for answers and for each other amongst the ghosts of the past.
The book takes place in the late 19th century, in the midst of a prolonged U.S. Civil War (though that doesn’t have a lot to do with the story.) About a decade-and-a-half earlier, the Alaska gold rush sparked a contest for devices that could dig under ice, and one intrepid inventor got a little too creative with the Boneshaker, a giant steam-powered drill. A premature test tore through most of downtown Seattle, before digging into the ground far enough to release a toxic gas known as the Blight. What does the Blight do? Well, it turns people into shambling flesheaters called “rotters”. Flash forward, and downtown has been walled off, with everyone living outside trying to keep too much of the Blight from getting into their air and water.
Briar, the late scientist’s widow, has been raising her son Zeke alone and keeping her head down. Zeke’s a teenager now, and he wants to know more about his father and what happened way back then, and with his mother silent and ashamed on the subject, he gets himself a gas mask and heads through a drainage pipe under the wall. No sooner does Briar find out about this than she goes after him, but an earthquake collapses the pipe, meaning she has to hitch a ride via airship. (Oh yeah, there are airships.) Inside the wall, there are still rotters waiting to devour human flesh, but also people living underground, trying to pump the Blight from the air and living in fear of the domineering Dr. Mitternicht.
That a story with this many ideas in it doesn’t go completely off the rails is a testament to how disciplined Priest is as a writer. The story is told more or less entirely through the eyes of Briar and Zeke, alternating between their points of view as they work their way in parallel through the ruined city. The alternation creates a lot of great cliffhanger moments, and the action flows at a natural (albeit breakneck) pace. Subplots are kept to a minimum; they exist but they don’t intrude too much on the main story.
At the same time, Priest has obviously put a lot of work into the setting, to the extent that there are probably other stories to be told in it. As I said, I’m not entirely sure what the Civil War angle contributes to the story, but I may have missed a detail there. As for the main story elements - airships, zombies, toxic zombie-creating gas - they’re blended very well. The rotters don’t completely dominate the action - it’s not a zombie book per se, or at least exclusively - but rather they show up every so often to tear through the streets and threaten everyone’s lives. These passages are particularly well-written, with the creatures described almost as a single boiling mass, sweeping through fragile buildings, up ladders, anywhere they can find purchase. We get some airship combat as well, which is briefly confusing but that may have been because I took a break between chapters, and the way the Blight is handled is very effective. Basically a kind of necrotic mustard gas from deep in the bowels of the Earth, it irritates the skin at first, and is even abused as a drug by some of the inhabitants of the city, even the ones outside the wall. Gas masks and clothing that doesn’t expose any skin are essential, and the constant attention given to details like mask filters and the seals outside safe zones drives home the reality of the threat.
None of this would work if the characters didn’t, and Briar and Zeke are both well-drawn. Briar is an interesting choice for a protagonist, being the working single mother of a teenaged boy, and she comes off as capable without being immediately exceptional- for years she’s just wanted to keep her head down, but her son forces her into an extraordinary situation. Zeke has an energetic nervousness I like, and there are a number of interesting supporting figures, including Dr. Mitternicht, about whom I can say little because what happens with him is fairly clever (and what you’re thinking is not it.)
Warren Ellis calls this Priest’s “breakthrough” book, and that somehow seems right to me even though I haven’t read any of her other ones yet. BONESHAKER is imaginative and wild and full of neat things, but it’s also tautly written and carefully constructed. Even if you’re not a fan of steampunk or zombies or alternate history, this is a fun read which puts all those elements in service of a believable human story. I hope more people discover this book, and I’ll have to give Cherie Priest’s other works a look.