Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Boneshaker is the second of Priest's books I've read, and is quite different from Four and Twenty Blackbirds. The latter is more of a traditional ghost story, while this one is a foray into the world of steampunk. It is, however, not your typical steampunk. Set in an alternate history Civil War era Seattle, WA, it doesn't have the Victorian era feel of most steampunk stories. That's not bad thing, and there are more than enough of the usual steampunk trappings to make it fit the genre.
The story is centered on Briar Wilkes, a widow who works in the water cleaning facility in the "clean" settlements outside Seattle proper. Her late husband, an inventor, was commissioned by the Russians to build a machine that could drill through the frozen Alaskan surface to mine the gold there, helping Russia to cash in on the gold rush. At its first test, the machine appears to go radically wrong, tearing up most of the financial district of Seattle, and tapping into a vein of poisonous gas that, when breathed, either kills or turns its victim into a zombie (called rotters by the populace). A wall has been build around the city to contain the gas, and a part of the population still lives inside its confines, needing gas masks to breathe in the contaminated air of the surface.
Briar's son, Zeke, has never fully believed the stories about his father- that he deliberately ran the Boneshaker machine into the banking district to rob the banks and escape with a fortune. Briar insists he is dead, but refuses to tell Zeke the full story of the days after the Boneshaker was first fired up. Zeke decides to go into the poisoned city to try and clear his father's name, and Briar, once she discovers what Zeke has done, goes after him.
There is more to the plot, of course: the die-hard inhabitants of the poisoned city, surviving on scavenged good from the abandoned houses and businesses inside the walls, and living in subterranean tunnels, a mad scientist who wants to rule the ruined city (and who may or may not be Briar's thought-dead husband), and air pirates who brave the poisoned air of the city to collect the addictive drug distilled from the gas. But the main story is Briar and Zeke's: his search to find out the things his mother would never tell him, and her search to find her son again, in more ways than one.
All in all, it was an enjoyable book. One thing kept jumping out at me, however. Why did the populace stay after the deadly nature of the gas vein opened by the Boneshaker was discovered? I can almost understand those who stayed in the city, similar to those who stay in hurricane or other disaster threatened areas. But for those who moved outside the city walls, there is never a clear explanation given for their staying on. There is a war going on back East, but there is the rest of the country. It was a loose end that never was tied up well.
The steampunk trappings were nicely added= airships, machines and devices that seem advanced for the time, and other details that paint the background fairly well. The plot moves quickly, without long expositions or loss of pacing. Characters are well-drawn and interesting. Perhaps not the best example of the genre, but certainly worth reading.
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