Confession time: I have been trying to read Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker for a couple years now, but it’s always due back before I’ve had a chance to read it. Now, I have made it assigned reading for myself (sci fi and fantasy week in my RA class), and it was as delightful as I thought it would be.
Part of Priest’s Clockwork Century world, where the Civil War has dragged on while other progress has sped up, Boneshaker is set in Seattle, but not the Seattle we would recognize. In this world, the Gold Rush happened earlier, bringing people west to make their fortunes—or so they hoped. Opportunity abounded, and one person hoping to cash in was Leviticus Blue, an inventor hoping to win the cash prize offered by the Russians for inventing a machine that would drill through the Klondike ice. The invention, Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill worked—until it lost control and cut a swath of destruction that destroyed homes and buildings, killed countless people in the rubble, and unleashed the Blight, a toxic gas that created zombies of the remainder of survivors. A massive wall was built around the city to keep the toxins and undead contained, and it’s outside of this wall that Briar Wilkes, Blue’s widow, escaped with her son Ezekial. Determined to clear the family name, Ezekial, or Zeke, takes off for the dangers within the wall, and Briar follows after, determined to ensure that her son doesn’t die over the secrets she’s kept from him.
This book almost feels like it’s pandering to me personally—a strong female protagonist (and other strong women to boot), airships, mad scientists, danger, and zombies. In steampunk fiction, strong women seem to be more the norm than exception, which I love. There is no romance in this story, just the determined love of a mother trying to save her son. The grittiness is appealing to me, and even the book’s formatting lends to the impression: the paper is slightly yellow in color, as though from Blight gas, with somewhat faded brown print, like an old map that was hidden for years in a family chest along with who knows what other secrets.
This is a good first foray into steampunk for readers who prefer the darker stuff. It is a bit of a commitment at 414 pages, but the pacing is suspenseful enough to keep the pages turning, switching back and forth between Zeke and Briar. If you can handle your alternate history with a dash of weirdness, give Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman a try, blending Victorian history with characters from literature… and lizard people. If the fantastic inventions have captured your fancy, but you’re not so sure about the zombies (much less lizard people), try the works of steampunk’s grandfather, Jules Verne (no zombies, but there are inventions galore). And because I can’t resist recommending one more favorite: try Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls, another steampunk-esque romp with pirates, airships, and betrayal; it’s not so much steampunk in a historical setting as fantasy with steampunk elements and just a hint of the supernatural.
I so dearly want to rave about other favorite steampunk reads here, but I realize that some of them have entirely different appeals and tones to them, so I won’t, but if you’re curious about what else is out there, drop me a comment, and I will try to hook you up with something you’ll enjoy.