So I’ve officially shattered my anti-urban-fantasy prejudices and gorged myself silly on my new favorite comfort reading. But what’s a girl to do when she runs out of Kate Daniels books? I decided to try something else that I’ve been a bit prejudiced against: steampunk.
My impression is that steampunk is more an aesthetic than a genre–specifically, it’s a blend of nineteenth-century clothes and steam-powered machines with twentieth-century tech.* I think I’ve been disinterested in steampunk because this is not an aesthetic that holds much appeal for me. I’m not particularly nostalgic for corsets.** Sure, they can look cool, but I enjoy my internal organs in their current positions, thank-you-very-much.
But after I ran across the fifth gushing review of Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, I decided to give them a try. The first book in the series is Boneshaker, which opens in 1879 on the outskirts of Seattle–but a very different Seattle than the one we know. This Seattle has been shut off from the outside world following the release of toxic subterranean gas that the locals call the “Blight.” The gas escaped the earth when a mad inventor named Leviticus Blue recklessly tested a new mining machine that he called the Boneshaker.
Sixteen years after the Boneshaker accident, Briar and Ezekiel “Zeke” Wilkes live outside the walls of Seattle. Briar works long hours at a mind-numbing factory job; her son Zeke is sullen and semi-wild. The little Wilkes family is isolated and clearly lonely, and we quickly learn it’s for a good reason. Two good reasons, actually. First, Briar’s father Maynard Wilkes was either a villain or a folk hero, depending on who you ask.
Second, Briar’s husband and Zeke’s father was Leviticus Blue himself.
Zeke, understandably, questions the official account of the Boneshaker disaster. He wants to believe that his dead father was a better man than the stories–and his mother–claim. And so one day, Zeke vanishes into the toxic wasteland of Seattle, looking for his parents’ old home and for the documents he believes will rewrite Leviticus’s legacy. Briar, panicked at the thought of Zeke alone in the city, follows him.
The rest of Boneshaker has a wonderful through-the-looking-glass quality to it. Both Zeke and Briar quickly learn that the city is not empty, as they’d been told. They both find themselves with uneasy allies, trying to figure out the rules that govern walled-off Seattle. They also must work to avoid the attention of the mysterious and sinister Dr. Minnericht, who frightens even the toughest survivors they meet. And then there’s the little matter of fighting off the zombies created by the Blight gas, and keeping their gas masks working so they won’t succumb to the Blight themselves.
I found Boneshaker completely absorbing, largely because I wanted to find out what would happen to the Wilkeses. It would have been easy to write Zeke as a bratty pain-in-the-ass, but Priest finds a good balance between Zeke’s teenage bravado and his very sympathetic longing to understand the events that set the course of his life. Similarly, Briar isn’t a stock “panicked mother” character–she’s a woman who’s earned toughness the hard way, who has made some mistakes, but who will fight for the things that matter to her.
The supporting characters are also wonderful–in fact, they’re so wonderful that I don’t want to spoil the surprise and delight of meeting them. The one complaint I had about Boneshaker is that Dr. Minnericht’s storyline ends with a bit of a whimper. For most of the book he is a terrifying villain, half crime boss and half mad scientist, but the end of the book doesn’t quite do him justice–without spoiling what happens, I will simply say that I didn’t buy his backstory.
That’s a minor quibble. If a mashup of a Western, a scary-new-world adventure, and a zombie story sounds like something you’d enjoy, pick this up. (Also, if you share my fashion prejudices, I am happy to say that Briar does not wear a single corset.)
Rating: Buy it
* Your reviewer humbly admits that, while she has tried Googling “steampunk” in order to define it, she may not be entirely clear on what exactly “steampunk” is. Corrections are welcome.
** I should also perhaps admit that, like most people with history PhDs, I am physiologically incapable of nostalgia.