What do you get when you cross the cogs of steampunk with the gruesomeness of zombies? You get The Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. Haven’t heard of it you say? Well foolish mortal, now you have. Here is a book to fulfill your steampunked dreams, with excellent writing, superb machine craftsmanship, and zombies.
Here’s a brief synopsis:
Briar Wilkes (Blue) was once married to the man who created The Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine. It was commissioned to dig deep into the Klondike for gold, but on its initial test run something goes terribly wrong. Several blocks of Civil War era Seattle are collapsed and destroyed as the machine digs its way through both foundations and rock, including those in and around Seattle’s financial district. But, the worst of the destruction comes from the bowels of the earth as a poisonous gas, known as The Blight, rises up, slowly killing all who breathe it, only to come back as zombies. Fifteen years later, the wall that was originally built to keep The Blight from spreading, also hold secrets that Briar’s fifteen year old son Zeke, wants to know about. The boy finds his way into the decimated walled-up inner city and begins his search for answers his mother never gave him. Briar follows her son in order to save him from dangers he could never have imagined, with the help of Captain Cly and his dirigible, and with the help of several characters who chose to live within the desolate walls. During her search for Zeke she must live through attacks by rotters, and the fiendish manipulations of Dr. Minnericht, who may or may not be her husband, all in order to find her son.
Sound good? It really is for several reasons.
The quality of the steampunk gadgets is believable. Electricity was still in its infancy and Priest shows this through some of the workings of the inner city. Power to operate most equipment has to be generated from steam, billows, pulleys, or static electricity. Items (with one exception) don’t magically operate on command, with no explanation as to how it is even possible. Priest shows the reader how modified weaponry and specialized ventilation systems work in her story, but the reader is not bogged down or overwhelmed by complex technical jargon. The fantastical devices are not the whole story either, but inanimate characters who add to the overall setting.
Another reason this was such a great read is that Priest did not fall into the trap of romanticizing Seattle that once was, and what it has become, or any of the characters. It was gritty and dirty with very few reminders of Seattle’s former glory during the 1880’s. The inhabitants don’t wax poetic over what once was, because they are forced to live in the very real and deadly present, in order to make it to tomorrow. Sentimental tripe is no where to be fond. She also did not feel the need to add any romantic attachments, which was wonderful, as too many books these days rely on that at some point in order to move a story along. Admittedly, this may have led to the lack of development in regards to some of the characters.
Finally, there are the zombies. In this book they are referred to as rotters, and I loved them. The explanation as to how they came about is plausible, poisoned by The Blight gas, and they are not all slow moving and mindless. These stinking rotting walking corpses can move it when they sense fresh meat, even going so far as to climb in one chapter, in order to get a tasty morsel. They can be killed in the time honored zombie way, by destroying the brain, but they are so aggressive and numerous, that for the few humans who live within the dead city it is usually more important to run away.
Cherie Priest has created a novel that is a must have in any steampunk and zombie library. While she played loose with the history of Seattle, it was not done in manner that became distracting. Her use of newly imagined machines and weapons adds to the overall story, instead of being the whole story. The people who inhabit her world are not idealized caricatures. And, the zombies, they are now longer human, just walking nightmares.