My love for Ms. Priest’s work has been professed before so this review is hardly unbiased. Indeed, Boneshaker is certainly one of the catalysts that sent me on brief dip into the steampunk pool. It is also the only steampunk novel I read this month that was set in America. If my appreciation of Ms. Priest’s work wasn’t enough to predispose me towards liking this novel she went ahead and set it in Seattle which, despite being a city I’ve only visited twice for all too brief a time and despite being born and bread in the shadow of the city that never sleeps, is a place that has a strange place in my heart; I guess it’s a city I guess I’m half in love with (with a gorgeous library that was hit hard by recent budget changes but if you visit you should definitely check out!).
Of course the Seattle of Boneshaker is not the Seattle we know. It is city that has become a wasteland thanks to the terrible Boneshaker built by Dr. Leviticus Blue which went on an uncontrolled rampage and somehow unleashed a hidden pocket of deadly Blight gas that not only kills all it touches, but brings those it kills back as flesh-craving rotters (a history told much better by the book’s introduction available over at The Clockwork Century). The book opens up years later with Leviticus’ wife, Briar and son Ezekial (Zeke) living in the Outskirts; a town that arose around the now walled-up Seattle. Briar and Zeke now go by the last name Wilkes, Briar’s maiden name, which has the advantage (for Zeke at least) in that Briar’s father is something of a folk hero amongst the poor, disrepute, and downtrodden of the Outskirts. The pair scrapes by, at least until Zeke hares off to the Blight filled Seattle in order to clear the name of both his father and grandfather, who the not-so downtrodden believe was a criminal. It isn’t long before Briar and copious amounts of adventure and excitement, follow.
Like Leviathan, Boneshaker takes real-history fudges some details and shuffles some dates to create something both new and familiar. Priest has fudged two important facts, in the large scale at least, for her setting. First is that the Civil War is still ongoing thus denying Seattle/Washington entry into the Union and thus preventing federal aid. More importantly perhaps is that Priest moved the Klondike Gold Rush up by about 40 years, Wikipedia tells me it occurred around 1893 while in Boneshaker the same occurs in 1850. The year might be different but the effect, the population and trade boom in Seattle, remains the same. Its a nice bit of historical juggling that lends the book a realistic feel while still maintaining its originality. There are other differences as well perhaps the most important being the importance of air power the use of dirigibles by both the armies to the east and the denizens of the Seattle area.
Perhaps more impressive then the historical elements that Priest tweaks is the fictional ecosystem and economy that she creates within and around Seattle. From the hardworking factory works who maintain the plant purifying the Blight tainted water, the smugglers and scavengers pillaging the abandoned Seattle, the opportunistic and amoral individual refining the terrible Blight gas into an addictive drug, to the hard-scrabble individuals still trying to make their way beneath the Rotter filled streets of Seattle all lend the novel a sense of tangible reality that is a true wonder to behold.
Boneshaker’s Seattle is a city robbed of its emerald sheen but still an eminently recognizable place made all the more believable by the people, places, and organizations the comprise its new existence. Like Seattle as it exists today it is a place with a tangible and unique character wholly its own and accentuated by individuals as real and multi-dimensional as their setting. There is of course the tortured and hard-bitten Briar Wilkes who, right off the bat is both a character we immediately empathize with and, thanks to her strength and perseverance, we never have to have to feel sorry for. Her tough yet weary exterior is contrasted by the energetic and hopeful Zeke who fully buys into his grandfather’s folk hero image. As the novel progresses Priest does a fantastic job of contrasting the maturity and independence that resulted from Zeke’s upbringing with the exuberance and immaturity of youth. Zeke’s contrasting nature occasionally makes him annoying; but is the annoyance an true twelve year-old boy might elicit from an adult which I think is a credit to Priest’s writing (despite might occasional desire to slap some sense into Zeke). Priest goes on to populate her book with a vibrant cast of second-tier characters from Lucy, the one-armed barkeep, to Fang the silent Chinese crewman of the Namaah Darling, to a mysterious Indian “princess” on quest for revenge against a mad scientist Boneshaker has character in spades.
Boneshaker is a novel full of adventure, excitement, and mystery that manages to capture a sense of history and blend it with the wonder of science fiction and a dash of horror thrills into a near perfect concoction. The sense of history, of things left unsaid, that suffused Priest’s earlier novella Those Who Went Remain There Still is expanded upon and hone to perfection in the muddled history and crushing weight of Briar’s past and constance looming shadow of Leviticus Blue. While my experience with Priest’s fiction only covers three of her seven novel’s I wouldn’t be surprised if Boneshaker and the Clockwork Century material is a synthesis of the themes and elements from all her previous work. Boneshaker is a great read, not just for fans of steampunk, but anyone who enjoys thrilling fiction from an author whose craft continues to improve with each new piece of fiction. Top notch stuff from a top notch author; I can’t wait to delve back into The Clockwork Century series (though I might content myself with tracking down of the antebellum set Dreadful Skin in the meantime).