Shortcut #65: Boneshaker

I admit it.  I’m late to the whole Steampunk vapor-driven, rail-riding transportation mechanismo.  No need to rub my face in it (which, by the way, would probably hurt a lot.

And, yes, it’s true that I read The Difference Engine ages and ages ago, but that was before Steampunk was, you know, a thing.

But a thing it is, as thingie as YA Dystopian novels, a genre made out of a larger genre that pretends to be just as large as what came before.  But unlike speculative fiction, which claims to (and pretty well does) cover every eventuality, every permutation of text, Steampunk is more like Western in scope.  And, in this case, the American version is exactly that.

At least this American version is.

Shortcut #66: Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker

Okay, from here you can read the Westerfeld blurb on the cover, and I must tell you that everything he says is true.  The beautiful cover of the book does not lie.  If you come to this book looking for adventure and mad science and heartfelt characters working their way out of dire situations that are as much their own making as bad luck or moustache-twirling villains, then you will not be disappointed.

But, I suppose I quibble with one point of aforesaid blurb.  The problem is that saying Boneshaker is “A steampunk-zombie-airship adventure of rollicking pace and sweeping proportions” implies that the novel’s action is continent-spanning, an epic a la Tolkien, an implication that elides one of my favorite aspects of the novel: That it takes place entirely within the Seattle of 1880.

What I love about this novel is it’s seeming confined scope.  This is a steampunk novel, yes, but it is centered in the Old West and though the world at large is hinted at, we are firmly and resolutely in the world of this alternate Seattle alone.  There are hints of how airships are being used in the Civil War (still going on, apparently) and how steampunk technology has altered the world, but we are only concerned with Seattle and, mainly, two people who live in it: Briar Wilkes and her son Ezekiel.

Sixteen years previous, a mad scientist’s experiment destroys the city (isn’t that always the case) and releases a gas from the ground that turns people into, well, zombies.  There isn’t much in the way of explanation for how the gas works or how the science works, in general, but it’s not necessary.  The world is described so carefully and in such bright details that it lives and breathes, and the science-fantasy on display is in service to the story and the world and, more importantly, it’s internally consistent.

(All of which I’m pointing out because, in the fragment of one review I read, Priest was being brought to task for her zombifying gas and the science, or lack thereof, at work in her book.  But to hell with that guy.  It’s a good book, and that, to me at least, is what finally matters when, well, judging a book.)

Briar is the widow of the mad scientist who destroyed Seattle, and is shunned as a result.  But when her son enters into the old city (walled off in order to keep the gas contained) in order to find evidence that his father is innocent of Seattle’s destruction, she’s forced to confront her past in her quest to save her son.   Okay, that’s a summary (a logline?) of the book designed to pique your interest, but it’s also the heart of the novel.

Sure, Boneshaker is filled with strange inventions and interesting characters.  This alternate Seattle is engrossing, especially when, inside the old town, we’re given a vision of ghost town that is still stubbornly inhabited by those unwilling to give up their homes (or who have to escape the law).  But what kept me clawing forward through the book, page after page, chapter upon chapter, was Briar’s story, a story that was only so riveting because Priest makes her so real: so bitter, so brave, so inventive, and so willing to risk everything for those she loves.

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