Publication Date: 29th September 2009
Published by: Tor Books
Genre: Science Fiction (Steampunk with zombies)
Set in an alternate reality of the past, Boneshaker takes place in Seattle, Washington and the American civil war is still occurring.
It begins with a prologue: Briar Wilkes, the female protagonist, come home from a double shift of engineering work to find a man waiting for her outside her home. At first she thinks he has come about Zeke, her 15 year old son (the male protagonist), which makes her anxious. It turns out he is a writer who wants to interview her about her infamous deceased father, Maynard Wilkes, because he wants to write his biography.
Sixteen years previously, Briar was married to a wealthy scientist, Leviticus Blue, and living a life of luxury. It was a time when both Russian and American investors were jostling to gain the advantage to access the Klondike gold in the region. Levi Blue was a notorious inventor who took part in a competition to design a machine that could drill through the almost impenetrable earth to allow the Russians access to the gold. Having won the competition and been given a cash advancement to get the work started, Blue worked on his machine and completed it ahead of time. On the very first test run it was clear that the machine was capable of doing what it was meant to do, i.e. penetrate the earth, but things went horribly wrong when Blue lost control of the machine and it burrowed through the underground of the city, weakening foundations and causing mass destruction that ended in thousands of deaths and destroyed buildings. The disaster caused a toxic gas within the earth's crust to be released, forcing a mass evacuation of the city. The gas was thick enough to be kept at bay by the wall that was then built around the city. Briar, by then pregnant with Zeke, was forced to flee.
No one knows for sure what happened to Levi and, since he is not around to pay for his crimes, Briar and Zeke are treated by most people around them as though they are guilty by association. They experience hardship on the outside, but Briar is determined to do the best she can for Zeke.
Briar's father did not approve of her marriage and they were estranged. During the evacuation, Maynard refused to leave the prisoners in the city inside to die. He risked his life to help them escape, exposing himself to the toxic gas which killed him soon after. As a result of his actions, he is considered not only a hero but a saint of sorts among the former prisoners and their families. It is rumoured that there are areas within the city where the air is breathable and that people live there. Those who are exposed to the gas don't just die, they become undead. They crave living flesh (they will eat animals but prefer the flesh of humans) and are referred to as 'rotters'. The city is known to be swarming with them.
Briar believes that, collectively, Maynard and Levi have ruined her life and she hopes things will be different for Zeke. She refuses to talk to him about either of them and so he has had to go by information from others, mostly rumours. He sees his grandfather as a hero and he would like to think his father was not all bad. The visit from the journalist prompts him to quesiton his mother about his grandfather, they argue and this triggers a chain reaction that has Zeke entering the toxic city (wearing a safety mask that will protect him for a maximum of 10 hours) and Briar to go after him....
This book was selected for my next book group and is the first steampunk novel I have read. I probably would not have chosen to read it otherwise (I ususally avoid books with zombies in them), but I don't regret it.
Ironically, after all the cruelty Briar has experienced over the years on the outside, everyone that she encounters on her mission to find and save her son is helpful and kind to her. Zeke, it would appear, isn't so lucky. He meets a man named Rudy who offers to take him to his destination (Zeke's parents' old house). Only, he seems to be leading him deeper underground. On the way, they encounter a Native American princess who warns Zeke that Rudy is taking him to his death. Zeke managed to enter the city using an underground tunnel (just before an earthquake shuts off access). Briar cannot follow and she has to find a pilot to take her. Luckily, she finds someone who is willing to do so and it turns out the pilot's life was saved by her father. Briar's constant good fortune is sort of justified by the fact that she is Maynard's daughter and he is so well respected among the people inside the city. However, I would say that Cherie Priest is optimistic in her writing approach and, as I have alluded to above, some events occur rather conveniently (or inconveniently - such as the earthquake) and so the plot seems somewhat contrived.
The back story is mostly alluded to and I liked that about it. There is enough to allow the reader to draw conclusions. For example, I imagine that Maynard was a law-upholding righteous man of principle and that he probably had high expectations of Briar that she could not live up to. I imagine that she probably married Levi Blue as an act of rebellion, which back-fired. She was young and foolish and made a mistake that she is paying for.
Despite the zombies, this is not a scary novel. The zombies are pretty much on the periphery most of the time and rarely pose a serious threat. On the rare occasion that they did, it's the expendables* that end up getting captured. I did find myself wondering if the zombies were even necessary (but I would).
Boneshaker is a gentle and passive read - so if you're looking for horror, this isn't it. I found it to be an enjoyable read - but I am not a fan of the horror genre.
*expendables are what I call characters who have a minor role and aren't important enough for the reader to care about; they tend to be the ones that get killed off.