Boneshaker, Cherie Priest

<em class="BookTitle">Boneshaker</em>, Cherie Priest

Tor, 2009, 416 pages, C$20.50 pb, ISBN 978-0-7653-1841-1

Anyone going to SF conventions this year has realized that the most popular costume themes of 2010 are zombies and steampunk.  Everyone loves zombies!  Everyone loves steampunk!  What if you tried combining both?  Ah, the possibilities…!

So it is that Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker takes place in an alternate 1870s Seattle where, sixteen years earlier, a mad science experiment has led to the release of noxious gases transforming people into… zombies.  The city core has been walled-up, but the zombies remain.  As the story begins, the teenage son of the scientist determined to uncover the truth about his father sets out to explore the walled-up city; his mother quickly follows, pursued by a healthy dose of swashbuckling adventure.  Zeppelins, zombies, mad scientists and post-apocalyptic landscapes are soon involved.

There are probably no more back-handed compliments as “fans of this stuff will like it”, but that’s still a pretty accurate reflection of what I’m left thinking at the end of the novel.

I should start by admitting that I have no particular affection for steampunk, either in content or form.  Content-wise, steampunk is a case of arrested technological development: There’s a reason why we got rid of (messy, unwieldy, dangerous) steam technology as soon as we found something better.  It doesn’t help that recent attempts to justify worlds in which Victorian technology endures are usually closer to contrived wish-fulfillment fantasy that any kind of reasonable SF.  I’m marginally more sympathetic to the aesthetics of steampunk, but my own preferences run along the clean neat lines of Apple/IKEA.  That leaves us with steampunk’s considerable potential as criticism of Victorian or contemporary social attitudes, but that aspect usually gets short thrift in the recent steampunk revival.  Add to that the idea of steampunk as a bandwagon and you’ll find me on the outside of the party, wondering when it will move on to something new.

Also: Zombies?  I’ve seen enough of them for the next ten years.  Played-out.  Give me something else.

But it’s a disservice to reduce Boneshaker to its simplest zeppelin/zombies components.  The raison d’être of the book is adventure, and I shouldn’t begrudge anyone their fun in riding hot-air machines to blow up the un-dead.  Cherie Priest is obviously having fun playing in the catacombs of Seattle and scratching a few irresistible creative itches.  If it doesn’t happen to run along my own obsessions, well, at least I can recognize the fun being had here.  My indifference to the result isn’t a reason not to mention the strong female protagonist (maternal action heroines are a rarity, and this one should be celebrated), the attention to racial diversity and the overall maturity of the prose.

On the other hand, maybe there’s an issue here if the novel hasn’t managed to reach out of its intended constituency.  At 416 pages, the book takes forever to get going and advance just as slowly once it has set up its plot.  The many peripheral characters could have been tightened, some of the early scene-setting is blunt to the point of being obvious (Oh, hello Mister Journalist; let me tell you everything readers need to know.) and the epilogue only reinforces how little has actually happened by the end of the novel.  (This may be explained by an announced sequel.)

It all amounts to a book that feels considerably less substantial than I could have wished for, which wouldn’t have been a problem if it had somehow managed to reach one of my own pet passions.  But Boneshaker remains what it wants to be, and not a lot more.  I can hear readers squeee in satisfaction at the result and am happy that they’re having as much fun as I do when I read a novel that does manage to hit my own squeee-points.  But I won’t feign enthusiasm either for something that leaves me curiously unsatisfied.

(One final note, so petty it shouldn’t even be mentioned except for the significant annoyance factor: Whoever at Tor thought that it would be a good idea to print this book in brown ink may not have spent enough time on public transit, where imperfect fluorescent lighting leads to a scatologically delightful brown-on-yellow low-contrast reading experience.  Don’t do that again.)

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