Boneshaker – Cherie Priest (2009)
Priest has created a compelling alternate history steampunk world where the basic premise is that in Seattle in the early days of the American Civil War, Leviticus Blue, a renowned inventor, created a revolutionary new drilling machine. This is the Boneshaker, designed to drill into the hardest permafrost in a bid to strike gold in the frozen wilds. One day, seemingly for no reason, Blue takes the machine on a rampage beneath the city which not only collapses cellars and buildings but releases a deadly mist from the Earth.
Seattle is evacuated and a great wall built around the city to confine the gas, known as The Bight. During the somewhat hurried exodus, Blue’s father-in-law, Maynard Wilkes, releases prisoners from a local jail who would otherwise have been left to die.
Fifteen years later, Blue’s widow, Briar, is coping with bringing up her son Ezekiel while working at a gruelling job where all her colleagues object to the widow of Levi Blue working with them.
Zeke, as he is known, is obsessed with discovering the truth behind his father’s actions. Having discovered that there are still people living within the walls – albeit in sealed off tunnels or buildings supplied with air by ceaseless pumping mechanisms – he runs off to try and enter the city and return to his parents’ house.
Briar, having discovered his note, has no choice but to go after him and attempt to get him out alive. There are worse things to worry about than the deadly gas itself it appears as one of its properties is to animate the dead, converting them to ravening flesh-eating zombies or ‘rotters’ as they are known here.
Priest, to her credit, does an excellent job of combining steampunk, alternate history and zombies in what is – given the bald synopsis above – a bit of a far-fetched notion.
However, it all works remarkably well, structured in a dual narrative following Zeke and Briar alternately as they roam the rotter-infested ruins of Seattle where the inventions of Levi Blue have been adapted to produce various instruments of defence and survival.
There’s a cast of extraordinary characters such as Lucy, a low-tech cyborg bar owner who has had her arms replaced with functioning mechanical replacements (thinking about it, it would have been a neat touch to call her bar ‘The Clockwork Arms’) and the sinister Captain Nemo-esque Dr Minnericht who never removes his mask and runs a small empire from his marble and brass underground headquarters.
It’s a bit of a disappointment that Priest does not explore the mutant birds further, since the blackbirds in the city seem to have evolved some form of gestalt consciousness. They are mentioned in passing, but nothing more is made of them, at least in this novel.
There are sequels so maybe we may learn more of these strange denizens of Seattle.
As of the time of posting, ‘Boneshaker’ has been optioned by Hammer for a movie adaptation and a screenplay is underway.