Boneshaker, the first book in Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century, won the 2010 Locus Award in the Best Science Fiction Novel category and was nominated for the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel.
Boneshaker takes place in an alternate history version of Seattle. It‘s the 1880s and the Civil War still rages; combat dirigibles fly over a dark, shattered country and the city of Seattle has been sealed by an enormous wall after being polluted by a mysterious gas that kills and then reanimates its victims. The gas was released during a test run of inventor Leviticus Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine (The Boneshaker). Many believed Blue had more nefarious motives for his test run. Sixteen years have passed and his headstrong teenage son Ezekiel (Zeke) Wilkes sets out alone into the dangerous city to clear his dead father’s name. Blue’s widow Briar blames herself for their son’s foolhardy quest and sets out to find Zeke.
I have an appreciation for authors who surprise me, and Priest did just that. With elements of steampunk, fantasy, science fiction, alternate history and horror, Boneshaker flawlessly blends multiple genres. I was impressed with the intense action, sinister scientists, imaginative weapons and gadgets, thrilling twists, and flesh eating zombies. I know you’re thinking “Zombies … again … yikes!”, but the “rotters” are an obstacle in the story not a focus.
Mother and Son
Boneshaker’s focus is the relationship between the two protagonists, Briar Wilkes and her son Zeke. These characters aren’t complex, their motivations and development being standard fair; however, they are enjoyable and their various adventures entertaining.
Briar and Zeke have the typical communication issues that plague most parent/teenager relationships, yet theirs is strained to the max by a family history that has become mythos in their impoverished neighborhood. Zeke is determined to learn the secrets that Briar has kept from him since birth. His quest leads him into the walled section of the city where the air is as perilous as the reanimated dead and those who live inside are about as trustworthy as a politician during an election campaign. Briar sets out to rescue her son and get him out before he is killed. The viewpoint switches from mother to son as they interact with an array of eccentric characters and discover long-dead secrets that will change each of them forever.
Rejoice, all ye alternate history buffs
Priest has created an interesting and plausible alternate history. Her setting (Civil War-era United States) refreshingly defies the usual milieu of Victorian-era Europe. The events are believable and the technology exciting and fun. Boneshaker focuses primarily on the world seen through the eyes of Briar and Zeke; however, it is made quite clear that there is a more intricately developed world beyond the walls of zombie-infested Seattle.
So why should you read this book?
Boneshaker isn’t going to challenge you, but the fascinating mix of genres ensures a pleasurable read for anyone who is looking for a book full of fast-paced adventure and quirky characters. With all the awards and nominations, I expected more from it, but it’s exciting and playful with a setting that begs for further exploration. Thankfully, Priest has since released Clementine and Dreadnought. Each is set in the same Clockwork Century world and although some elements and characters overlap, they are all stand-alone novels. I look forward to reading both.