Page Turners

Boneshaker and Narrative Clutter



If there’s one subgenre of stories that I’ve experienced the most simultaneous interest and repulsion from, it’s got to be steampunk. That style of story, and aesthetic in general, has always been fascinating to me. I loved the works of Jules Vernes as a child, and that sort of turn of the century science fiction has always been something I enjoy seeing. And yet, the other people who are interested in that aesthetic, and the stories they build around it, tend to really rub me the wrong way. I’ve been looking for a solid novel that could get me into this world of old-timey sci-fi. And it’s been a hell of a quest. There’s some seminal works in the steampunk literary genre, but from what I can tell most of them seem kind of intolerable. But then I came across a series of novels written by Cherie Priest, a pretty renowned horror and sci-fi writer, that took place in a very intriguing steampunk universe. The Clockwork Century series seems very much up my alley, so I decided to give it a shot by diving into the first novel in the series, Boneshaker. And, I really enjoyed it! There’s one pretty huge element that didn’t work for me, but overall it was a lot of fun.

Boneshaker takes place in a very complicated, but well-explained world. Around the time of the Civil War there was a gold rush in the Yukon, which turned the nearest American territory, Oregon, into a boomtown, Seattle specifically. However, when there became problems mining in the frozen ground, a competition began to develop a machine that could accomplish that. Enter an inventor named Levi Blue who created a massive drill called the Boneshaker, which he was sure would be able to accomplish the goal. However, before it could be tested Blue used the Boneshaker for a joyride which ended up destroying a lot of Seattle and tapping into a mysterious gas pocket that released a thick noxious substance that the people of Seattle called the Blight. The Blight was very deadly, and quickly spread through Seattle, destroying the population to the point where they ended up walling the city off, calling Seattle a no-man’s land and abandoning it, leaving the few surviving citizens to form shanty towns outside the walled city and struggle to survive.

But the story itself deals with a mother and son, Briar and Zeke Wilkes. Briar was the wife of Levi Blue, and Zeke is the son that he never knew. They live in the Outskirts, dealing with the eternal shame that their family name has been given due to Blue’s mysterious and destructive actions. Zeke is convinced that his father, and thus their family name, can be redeemed, and when he’s sixteen he manages to sneak into the walled city of Seattle, hoping to deal with the strange people who still live in the town, surviving with the use of gas masks, and redeem his father. Briar is sure that this is a foolish decision, and follows her son into Seattle, having to hitch a ride from a group of zeppelin-sailing pirates who siphon off Blight to turn into drugs. The two characters then meander around the post-Apocalyptic world of Seattle, encountering the oddballs who have created a society in the underground chambers of Seattle, fighting off the strange zombies that have arisen prolonged exposure to the Blight, and an evil scientist who calls himself Minnericht who may or may not be Levi Blue. Their paths weave in and out of the city, meeting a whole assortment of goofy and fun characters, but never crossing. Until they finally find themselves both captured by the evil Dr. Minnericht, leading to a massive fight for the future of this strange society that has grown up in the destroyed city.

This novel is a whole lot of fun. It can be incredibly difficult to set up a complicated world like this in an elegant way that doesn’t just feel like an information dump, and I think that Priest accomplished this wonderfully. We do get a lot of information up top, but the rest of the novel then doles out appropriate amounts of information over the course of the story, letting a solid story prop up the interesting world in a way that I really appreciated. It’s full of fun characters, a really well-realized world, and quite a bit of thrills and action.

However, there’s one strange thing that did kind of keep me from absolutely loving the novel. And this may be an incredibly weird thing to use as an justification, but whatever. Coco Chanel once said that when you leave your house you should look at your outfit and remove one thing, keeping yourself from being too cluttered in accessories. And I kind of feel like this book could have taken that advice to heart. Because I have no idea why this story needed zombies in it. These blight zombies seemed like just one too many plot elements, they didn’t really add to much at all, and in fact just made this story feel incredibly dated to the year it came out when everyone cared way too much about zombies. Writing that plot description I could have left the zombies out completely. They barely mattered. And yet, they shoved into this story in a very strange fashion, and became the only part of this novel and the world it was building that felt ham-fisted to me. I see that there are several other novels in this series, all spinning out of the sort of steampunk world that this novel helped assemble, and I really do look forward to checking them out. I just hope they can exist in their own world without sticking zombies in.


Boneshaker was written by Cherie Priest and published by Tor Books, 2010.

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