Boneshaker is my first encounter with Cherie Priest, and comes with a lot of advance notice and even the Locus award. It would seem to promise a specific experience, with its steampunk setting (and cover, and title for that matter), but what it delivers is something else entirely and, for me anyway, a big disappointment.
Now alternate history for me is mostly a waste of time. i can’t say i’ve read a lot of it, but what i have read seems to indulge in the differences in history and then tell a story that could just have easily been told either in a completely fictional setting, or in the real history that its trying to alternate. But i’ll make an exception for steampunk, since there at least you have the trappings of a mechanized culture that never made the jump to technology as we recognize it now. This works better in a visual medium, where you can see all the gears and dirigibles and what not, in a book you need to keep describing things to remind people of the setting, but it can be done.
In Boneshaker you have both alternate history and steampunk, where some infernal machine opened up a rift under 19th century Seattle that released some noxious gas, forcing the city to be evacuated and completely walled off. Zeke is the rebellious teenager, raised by his mother Briar, who decides to sneak into the city to find out the true story about his father, the inventor who unleashed the fog that turned Seattle into a no-mans land, populated by zombies.
This is where I start to lose it, because this story doesn’t really need zombies, it just seems like it was convenient to throw them in for marketing purposes. Sure, they’re not called zombies, but that’s what they are, the fog has turned those left behind into shambling unthinking creatures of darkness who prey on those who haven’t yet succumbed to the gas. Zombies can be fine in their place, if they’re presented as a real death-dealing menace, and if some likeable characters are tragically transformed into more zombies during the course of the story. But neither of those things happen. After Zeke goes missing, Briar goes after him, a well-timed earthquake cuts off their escape, and so various ragtag groups of dirigible pilots and tavern keepers so forth are enlisted to help keep mother and son alive and try to bring them back together, and to both foil the evil schemes and determine the true identity of the evil Minnericht. While the “rotters” are a nuisance, too much of the book is spent running away from them for seemingly no other purpose than to postpone the revelations as to what really happened to Zeke’s father and delay mother and son’s inevitable rendezvous.
Priest provides plenty of action, even if much of it doesn’t have any real consequences and instead seem like levels in a video game. Even though there are airships and one character has a mechanical arm and everyone has to wear goggles to avoid the effects of the fog, I wouldn’t offer this up as a convincing example of steampunk. The dialogue seems a bit stiff, too, everyone talks like they’ve read too many comic books. This story was designed and written for a specific audience, in that respect it succeeded admirably, with enough praise to spawn further books. But I doubt I’ll be reading them, for my taste one alternate history zombie steampunk graphic novel is enough.