After establishing herself as a Southern Gothic writer (though she’s written a number of SF short stories), Cherie Priest turns her attention to several proposed works set in what she calls the “Clockwork Century.” The Civil War continues for decades, airships rule the skies, and something horrific has been unleashed out west. A Hugo-nominated steampunk adventure-fantasy-alternate history with zombies, mad scientists, and pirates should be fun, right?

Title: Boneshaker

Author: Cherie Priest
ISBN: 0765318415, 978-0765318411
First published: 2009.

Available from Amazon.uk, Amazon.com
and Amazon.ca

Premise:

A tunnel-digging device destroys much of nineteenth-century Seattle and releases a cloud of toxic zombie-breeding blight. When the son of the mad scientist blamed for the disaster gets lost while attempting to clear his father’s name, his mother enlists the aid of airship pirates in an effort to rescue him.

High Point:

While I had some problems with aspects of the world Cherie Priest has created, she describes it in extraordinary detail. The broader earth of the Clockwork Century, rather than the walled city, has my attention. It deviates enough from Steampunk Standard that I cannot call it mere imitation, and it sets a fine stage for some fun dime novel adventures. I don’t, however, consider this a serious Hugo contender (though I’ve been wrong on this count before).

Low Points:

The unveiling of Minnericht didn’t even work as a deliberate anticlimax. It underscored the character’s status as plot device.

Good SF and fantasy often leave elements of their worlds unexplored and unexplained, and I’m fine with this—so long as those elements make a kind of sense. When Priest’s world works, it works well. When it doesn’t, if feels like the set-up to a videogame. Too many people live without much reason within the walled-in city, often at the mercy of zombies which then prove fairly easy to overcome. I found her descriptions compelling, but I never quite accepted the place into which Zeke and Briar journey.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6. The book features a bizarrely original premise, composed of currently-popular genre elements, wrapped around a conventional quest narrative.

Imagery: 5/6 Priest’s tour of the destroyed city features several memorable images. Zombies have become a tad trendy, but her rotters roam a convincing landscape, inhabited with interesting types of people. She never explains the blight, but the tech used to cope with its effects seems real.

Story: 4/6. The story features an excellent set-up and considerable suspense. The conclusion feels rather rushed and predicable.

Characterization: 4/6. The supporting characters work well as types, but I never felt a strong sense of anyone as a developed human being. In that sense, the novel recalls more than a little a mainstream comic. Briar Wilkes comes closest to being a fully realized person, and I didn’t find her all that interesting.

Emotional Response: 4/6.

Editing: 4/6. Priest’s writing contains some impressive stylistic flourishes. She also—I assume, knowingly– violates several standard publisher’s provisos regarding dialogue and clear prose. That would be fine, if the obtuse replacements for “said” and redundant descriptive words served any kind of purpose. They certainly didn’t evoke the nineteenth-century writers for me, because Priest’s style is otherwise very contemporary. As it stands, these elements mar the book, often standing as examples of why so many editors loathe them.

Overall score: 5/6. The book tosses a number of fascinating ideas at the reader, to which I hope she returns. Zombie-creating-blight distilled into a drug that can have some serious horror-movie side effects? I want to know more about the culture that surrounds that one.

In total, Boneshaker receives 30/42