Thursday, 25 November 2010

'Boneshaker' by Cherie Priest - All Steam and No Punk

Boneshaker seeks to combine the steampunk genre with zombie horror. Published by Tor in 2009, it was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2010, though public reviews are mixed and varied.

Blurb from Amazon.co.uk:

At the start of the Civil War, a Russian mining company commissions a great machine to pave the way from Seattle to Alaska and speed up the gold rush that is beating a path to the frozen north. Inventor Leviticus Blue creates the machine, but on its first test run it malfunctions, decimating Seattle s banking district and uncovering a vein of Blight Gas that turns everyone who breathes it into the living dead. Sixteen years later Briar, Blue's widow, lives in the poor neighbourhood outside the wall that s been built around the uninhabitable city. Life is tough with a ruined reputation, but she and her teenage son Ezekiel are surviving until Zeke impetuously decides that he must reclaim his father s name from the clutches of history.


And surprisingly, I'm not giving away too much of the plot, as much of that background info is crammed into the first couple of pages. It is presented as an extract from a historical novel, which one of the characters is writing.

This character, Hale Quarter, is one of the first people we come across in chapter one. We see the world from a mixture of his and Briar's point-of-view. Then, Quarter disappears, and doesn't reappear again in the novel. Not a particularly smooth introduction to the story.

The novel is structured with two dominant view points: Briar and Zeke. Each have their own chapters. Briar's chapters are illustrated with a pair of goggles at the beginning, and Zeke's chapters with a gas lamp. A nice touch.

I felt Priest painted Briar's character quite well. Her history, her flaws, made her more human. However, she boarded on the stereotypical 'mother who will stop at nothing' to save her child.

Zeke, on the other hand, was an incredibly annoying character. He is meant to be an older teenager, but acts more like a ten or eleven year old. He lacks a sense of maturity, and his thoughts are simple. Often, he comes across as rather dumb, and I felt almost completely unsympathetic towards him.

Whereas Briar has a much more active stance in moving the plot forward, Zeke is lead around by others, making him passive and quite boring.

All four-hundred pages of the book take place within a few days. And this slow pace often takes its toll. The action scenes are well executed and exciting, but the spaces between them are often bogged down with unnecessary description, bantering, and time-fillers. It seems to me that there is no real control over the contours of action and suspense.

I commend Priest's original zombie ideas. The term 'rotter' is both apt and phonetically pleasing, and I liked the idea that these zombies were created by a poisonous gas. However, there is no attempt to explain why this 'blight' created the undead, or why or how it was being formed beneath the city. The characters don't even wonder about this, which I found strange. The role of the zombies in the plot is quite unoriginal. They are just there to loom, chase and destroy.

The steampunk elements are largely aesthetic. There are copious amounts of goggles, airships, weird weapons and strange devices. Nothing seems superficial in the sense that all the steampunk objects are important to the narrative. However, there is no real sense of rebellion in this text, no real sense of the 'punk'. This book doesn't really try to hold up a mirror to anything, to reveal any ugly truth.

The book itself bears a sepia text (as opposed to traditional black) which I personally found a little hard on the eyes. However, I adore the cover art and design.

Overall, I did enjoy reading Boneshaker, despite its flaws. Priest's imagined world is rich and dark. Perhaps with a little more editing and fine tuning, this book could have been even better.

Rating: *** (3/5 stars)

2 comments:

  1. I was on a panel with Cheri two or three years ago at Conclave (a sci-fi and fantasy convention), and she seemed a little overwhelmed as to where to go next with her writing. Now that Steampunk is taking off more Stateside, she might dive into the genre with a vengeance and produce a better sequel.

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  2. That's interesting, Rick. She's written two sequels in what has become the 'Clockwork Century' series. I haven't read either yet.

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