Premise: Set during the Civil War, a poisonous gas is released when a burrowing contraption called the Boneshaker runs amok underneath downtown Seattle. Briar Wilkes and her son Zeke run through subterranean tunnels to find their way out of the walled downtown area to catch an zeppelin into fresh air. Throw in zombies and steampunk elements to this alternative historical fiction and you have Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.
Zeke sneaks into the walled city of Seattle to find evidence that might clear his father, Leviticus Blue, of the crimes of burrowing under the city in the Boneshaker machine, originally designed to drill for gold, and releasing a toxic blight that changes people into zombie “rotters” that roam the streets. There are still people living in the sewers who have secured entrances and have found ways to filter the gas from their underground home. They have some helpful mechanical tools that aid them in their life that Dr. Minnericht has built, but no one really knows who he is or where he came from.
The mysterious Dr. Minnericht provides the people with tools and weapons, but he is also quite unknown. It is he who Briar seeks out to find her son, Zeke, because it is rumored that he could be Leviticus Blue, but she knows that to be impossible.
Themes: The relationship between a mother and her son plays a huge part in Boneshaker. She has raised Zeke alone since her husband took the Boneshaker for a destructive joyride by working in a factory and making sacrifices of the kind that parents do for their kids. Briar is even willing to delve into a zombie-infested cesspool in order to save and protect her son from harm.
Survival is hard enough without the threat of zombies, the yellowish noxious gas, the recurring earthquakes, and living under the whims of Dr. Minnericht. In such an unforgiving world, survival takes on a new meaning. Where else do you have to cover all your skin and wear a gas mask to go out in the streets and rummaging through buildings for simple supplies?
This is also a book about facing your demons. For Briar, going into the city is a challenge not only because of the rotters, but also because it means going to the home she left behind and unearthing the memories of the things that Leviticus Blue did to bring the city to its current state. Her husband supposedly died, but her father, Maynard Wilkes, saved people in the carnage caused by Leviticus. Will the people there know Briar by the legacy left by her father or the mistakes of her husband?
Pros: Priest successfully manages to combine elements of steampunk and zombie novels into one without coming across as forced or cheesy. The characters are well done, with a strong female main character that is far from cliche, her independent teenage son without all the expected angst, a cool Jeremiah Swakhammer that knows how to survive in the city, and the towering airship captain Andan Cly that helps Briar into the city to find Zeke. Boneshaker has an atmospheric style that makes this a fun read from start to finish.
Cons: I would have liked a little more world building simply to give genre fans something more to chew on. Basically, more zombie action for the zombie fans and more steampunk elements for the steampunk fans. Any twists at the end were also fairly obvious (at least to me).
Recommendations: Needless to say, I loved this book. Even the brown printed text helped suck me deeper into the gritty world Priest has created. For people new to either steampunk or zombie books this is a good entry point for either. Others familiar with either genre (or subgenre) will be pleasantly surprised with new elements to both. This will be a flagship book for the steampunk genre, if it isn’t already.