Jun 14, 2011

[Books] Boneshaker

BoneshakerIn my continued efforts of exploring steampunk fiction, I came across this Hugo nominated title that seemed to offer a lot of promise. I was a bit surprised that the author was a woman since it's not often enough that female speculative fiction writers get enough notice in geekier circles, and yet her book managed to stand out. That made it worth looking into and eventually worth the ebook purchase since I have yet to see physical copies of her books in local bookstores here in Manila.

These books in particular don't seem quite as far-fetched as some of the other steampunk ventures I've encountered. The focus wasn't so much on the technology but more its potential effects on the era. Thus this becomes more like an alternative history piece, but one with a generous amount of speculative technologies and sometimes fantastical elements involved as well. I liked her take on things - thus allowing the steampunk side of things remain part of the background and the setting instead of letting it become an overt distraction that might get in the way of the plot.

This book in particular taps into another popular theme these days - zombies. Well, at least a form of zombies, but not necessarily born of voodoo magic or anything like that. At first I was skeptical since the many "zombified" classics are really getting annoying, but then the book flowed really well and the zombie element actually worked. The different pieces all nicely complemented one another and the end result has been pretty cool so far.

Boneshaker is the first novel in what has come to be known as Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century series of books. You can consider this to be a science fiction novel, but really it's probably more specific to call it a steampunk novel as the genre continues to flesh itself out.

With the American Civil War already on the rise in the East, interest in potential gold to be found in the Klondike grew in the West, leading many a prospector to try and make their fortunes. A group of Russian investors decided to put up a challenge for the creation of a machine that could effectively and efficiently mine gold out of the frozen Alaskan earth. This challenge was eventually won by one Leviticus Blue with his Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Device, later on known simply as the Boneshaker. But instead of simply fulfilling the challenge, he goes on to use the machine to burrow under the city of Seattle in order to steal thousands of dollars from the local banks.

This accident has an unforeseen side effect - releasing a strange heavy gas that people eventually call the Blight. The gas does not dissipate freely into the air and instead ot just hangs closer to the earth, eventually killing anyone who breathes too much of the air and later raising them from the dead as Rotters. The old Seattle is eventually walled off to prevent the gas from infecting the rest of the area and Leviticus Blue disappears completely.

Many years later we are introduced to Briar Wilkes, who is actually the widow of Leviticus. She has a son, Zeke, who is convinced that his father was innocent and eventually decides to venture into the walled city to find proof to clear his father's name. Briar tries to follow in order to rescue him, and this leads her to an adventure of her own in the zombie-filled city.

Cherie Priest author photo taken by Caitlin Ki...Image via WikipediaI think a large part of what made this book successful (or at least enjoyable for me) is definitely the strength of the character-building along with how she set the stage for everything. And it's not just about the protagonist - Priest manages to introduce a wide variety of characters that are interesting right off the shelf or present a lot of potential growth for future adventures. Thus we can see possible avenues for growth in future novels, thus whetting your appetite for more stories in this alternative universe of hers.

Briar is a pretty strong female protagonist - always a good thing to see in any novel, science fiction or otherwise. But more importantly, she's not strong in an unrealistic or overly tomboy-ish way. She's genuinely female with a good mix of the pros and cons that comes with that path in life and yet she has clearly survived a number of trials and tribulations in her life to bring her to this point. Her single-minded devotion to her son Zeke is more than admirable and her determination to get past her own fears and the shadow of her husband's history makes for compelling adventuring indeed.

Priest's take on the steampunk genre felt nicely balanced - realistic and yet still trying to push the limits of what could be accomplished during the period. Thus you get steampunk staples like airships but you also get practical applications like massive ventilating bellows and Blight-proof gas masks. And yes, there's an artificial arm floating around in the mix as well should you get that far into the book.

Now to be fair, this book isn't exactly though-provoking nor does it have some powerful message that it's trying to convey. At its core it's the simple story of a mother trying to find her son and eventually dealing with the ghost of her husband and his impact on the boy's life. Sure there's the surrounding stuff about what the Blight actually is or how people manage to survive in so harsh an environment, but that's just window dressing. The core story is pretty simple, and that helps make it such a good read given the excellent execution involved.

And despite the semi-historical setting involved in the book, it never feels like you're being bombarded with too many facts and details. Sure there's the civil war setting and it might make things a bit more colorful to do some research into the Klondike gold rush or where exactly the American Civil War took place. But they're not terribly essential to the story given the liberties she sometimes takes with details or the simpler explanation that this remains to be an alternative history and one that is not necessarily tied to the actual flow of events. I could throw in a chaos theory reference, but that might be overkill.

Boneshaker is more than just a novel enjoying the steampunk setting. It's a great adventure tale that balances both realism and fantasy all in one great package, which is a feat in itself at times. It gets 4 different stories about the fate of Leviticus Blue out of a possible 5.

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