Hugo Best Novel Nominee review: Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

Our third Hugo best novel nominee is Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest. Boneshaker is the name of a machine designed to tunnel under the earth, which it did in 1880 underneath Seattle with catastrophic results—part of the city collapsed, a form of gas was released that turned people into zombies, and the remaining citizens (those that survived, anyway) were forced to wall in what was left so no one could get in or out. But of course people do, including, sixteen years later, the teen-aged son of the inventor of Boneshaker, who wants to clear his father’s name, and then Briar Wilkes, the inventor’s widow and Ezekiel’s mother, who must go and try to rescue her son. It’s all rousing stuff, with a decided steampunk edge to it—yes, there are dirigibles, lots of them. Plus a genuinely engaging and feisty pair of protagonists, Briar and Zeke.

Priest actually had me fooled for a while, because for about the first one-third of the book, I kept wondering why this book had been nominated. Yes, it’s a well drawn out historical fantasy, and she does a good job on what life in this hard environment was probably like. But the first third basically reads like a Young Adult novel, which is more or less what I thought it was for a while. But then the various hunts get going, and the novel becomes much darker. Priest ends up giving us a fine novel about loss and redemption, with a lot of steampunk/zombie swash and buckle as well. At root, however, is a fine book about mothers, fathers and sons, what binds them together, and what can tear them apart.

Because the over-riding theme here is loss—Briar has lost a husband and a world, and is in danger of losing a son as well, and she thus takes matters into her own hands. Briar is an engaging heroine, whose life following the Bonebreaker disaster has been one of drudge and misery, trying to wait out the never-ending American Civil War so she can eventually move back east with Zeke, to a place where she isn’t marked as the widow of the man who killed Seattle. But life doesn’t always cooperate, of course, which is how novels get going. And when Zeke disappears into the mess of toxicity and darkness that has been walled in, Briar rouses herself to face the past and go get him.

And it’s a dark and toxic world that Zeke has gone into, with Briar following. The gas has gotten worse over the sixteen years following the collapse, so you need masks to breathe, and you can barely see. And then there are those zombies chasing you around who will eat you at the drop of a Stetson. And there are people living in there, for heaven’s sake, who you run into. And some are fine people, and some aren’t very nice at all, and have plans for you. Once events start developing, it gets pretty exciting. Briar turns out to be a crack shot, which is a literal lifesaver at times. And she has a lot of common sense as well. She’s a solid character, as are most of the characters Priest has populated this world with.

If there’s a complaint, it’s that Priest has created a world that’s pretty boilerplate. She does a good job of fleshing out the details of life in this world, and the dynamics of the chases and fights are well structured. But it’s all a bit formulaic—for zombies, you could read ghosts, or aliens, or whatever. For walled-in Seattle, you could substitute planet, or power plant, or any of a number of standard SF motifs. So there’s nothing particularly visionary about what Priest has created here, in contrast to, say, the world of Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl.

But that’s OK. It’s a familiar tale well told, and often that’s sufficient. Within its boundaries, Boneshaker is a fine book, a fine adventure story and, ultimately a love story, a story about families and what people sacrifice to hold them together. I don’t see it winning the Hugo, frankly. It’s not a great book. But it’s a very good one, well worth reading.

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