~by Cherie Priest
2009 Nebula Award Nominee
2010 Hugo Award Nominee
2010 Locus Award Winner
I had seen Cherie Priest's Boneshaker before, and had read good things about it, but I didn't pick up the book until it was selected for the io9 book club. Jon Foster's cover art is eye-catching, striking, and stylistically different from what one is accustomed to seeing on the bookshelf these days, but it is highly appropriate for the story and fits it perfectly. I believe that Boneshaker is the first steampunk novel that I've read unless you want to count Perdido Street Station, which I don't personally. I do like the steampunk aesthetic, so that was one reason I was looking forward to reading Boneshaker. Plus, you know, zombies and sky pirates. I've seen Boneshaker on numerous recommended reading lists and it received quite a few award nominations as well, including for, among others, the 2009 Nebula award and the 2010 Hugo award, and was the winner of the 2010 Locus award.
On January 2, 1863, havoc was unleashed upon Seattle; the Boneshaker, an experimental drilling engine sponsored by the Russian government, tore through the city, literally collapsing the financial district and releasing a dangerous gas from below the earth's surface. The Blight sickens and kills its victims who rise again as rotters, continuing to spread the disease. Briar Wilkes, widow of Leviticus Blue, the man blamed for the catastrophe, and daughter of Maynard Wilkes, considered by some to be a saint and by most to be a traitor, finds herself and her son Zeke shunned by the community. Sixteen years after the Boneshaker incident, Zeke disappears into the ruined city, determined to discover the truth behind the matter and to prove the innocence of a father he knows nothing about. It is up to Briar to follow him in and ensure that he survives to make it out alive.
The first thing I noticed when opening Boneshaker was that the text was in a lovely sepia brown ink tone. I was worried that this would make the book difficult to read, but fortunately my fear was unfounded and I had no trouble at all. The prose itself is very readable and I found it to be quite enjoyable as chapters switched between following Briar and Zeke. The style is almost chatty and conversational and certainly informal for most of the book. Characters' speech in particular had a relaxed feel to it. In fact, the more proper and articulate a person's use of language, the more sinister they came across as being. I really enjoyed and appreciated this technique although it wasn't always very subtle. Generally, I liked all of the characters and that many of the secondary characters had pretty decent background stories, too; I would be interested in learning more about them, though.
Although there are plenty of grim and gritty elements in Boneshaker, overall it is a fun romp and a great adventure story. Nothing was too terribly surprising; plot-wise everything was pretty straightforward without many twists. Even what I suspect was supposed to be the big reveal wasn't entirely unexpected. There isn't too much thinking involved on the reader's part, making Boneshaker a fast read despite a slow beginning and an epilogue that feels tacked on. I want to call the book cinematic in its presentation--I could easily envision what was happening. Actually, I wouldn't mind seeing a film version of the story; there certainly were plenty of moments of badassery (often on Briar's part) and entertaining action sequences. One thing that I think worked particularly well, and what I particularly enjoyed, was the explanation behind the rotters--the Blight. Extraordinarily important to both the setting the the plot, Priest pulls it off marvelously.