This is my third book reviewed for the 2013 Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Worlds Without End, which has a wonderful database of award-winning SF. WWEnd has been a valuable companion to me in my efforts to broaden and deepen my appreciation of the genre(s). The goal of the challenge is to read 12 women SF authors you have never read before and write 12 reviews within the year. There are prizes for the best, most illuminating reviews, so check it out!
It is the late 19th century. The American Civil War has carried on for over a decade, and the America’s northwestern territories are mostly left to fend for themselves. On a commission from the Russian government, inventor Leviticus Blue creates a mighty machine, the Boneshaker, whose drill was intended to pierce the tough rock and permafrost in the vast oil fields of the Alaskan territories. Before its unveiling, however, Blue’s machine was turned on. The Boneshaker tore through his laboratory and through the underground of a great chunk of Seattle, in what would later become the state of Washington. Buildings collapsed, people and structures fell into massive sinkholes, and a noxious gas that turned people into rotting, cannibalistic monsters was released. Panic ensued, and in the confusion a well-respected lawman, Maynard Wilkes, went into the heart of the blight-gassed streets and released a mass of prisoners, possibly to help him take advantage of the chaos and rob the now-vulnerable banking district. Well, Wilkes died, Blue disappeared, and a great wall went up around downtown Seattle to cordon off the blight-filled streets and the rotters, the living dead, who now dwelt there
No one forgot Blue or Wilkes, and a decade and a half later Briar Wilkes-Blue is still a pariah in what is left of the outskirts of Seattle thanks to the deeds of her dead lawman father (Maynard) and her disappeared madman husband (Blue). All she has is her teenage son, Zeke, who has become obsessed with rehabilitating his father’s and his grandfather’s legacies. Bent on this task, Zeke disappears into the walled city to find evidence exonerating his father from the Boneshaker disaster. Briar chases after him, and the two, separated in the blight-gas-filled streets, will find that there is more than rotters and empty buildings to worry about in the devastation left by the mighty Boneshaker.
What Boneshaker Does Well
I’ve read several mixed reviews of this book, which is why I was surprised to find out just how well Boneshaker started off. Here we have a vivid image of a woman struggling to get by, working in a water purification plant that cleans the water poisoned by the gas her husband let loose in his drilling machine. Her co-workers and neighbors frequently remind her of her husband’s deeds, making her a pariah. Her son, Zeke, meanwhile embraces the memory of his grandfather, a lawman whose dying deed is misunderstood by polite society, but embraced by the lower classes. The tensions between Briar and the three most important men in her life (her father, her husband, and her son) make for quite a nice setup to this adventure story. Zeke is also the spitting image of a defiant teen eager to go to extremes for what he feels is the right thing, despite the consequences. This restless spirit is what leads him to foray into the city to find evidence of his father’s innocence in the Boneshaker disaster. Briar feels estranged from her son not due to a lack of love, but due to a sense that she has failed him and that he has been dealt a bad hand in life due to the men in her’s, and her pursuit of Zeke into the city is as much born of a mother’s love as it is a desperate need to reconcile with him for what she feels are her failings. It’s good drama and, the need to see these two reconciled kept me going in this book.
This book’s millieu combines steampunk (the use of advanced machinery for the time period, powered by steam and/or clockwork) and zombies, which at first I thought was too much but I think they worked together in the end. We have airships, which were available during the time period (observation balloons were used by military since around the turn of the 18th/19th century) but were not as sophisticated as these armored airships meant for warfare. The real interesting stuff comes in when our protagonists enter the cordoned off areas of Seattle, which are occupied by stubborn groups of survivors who use technology to pump clean air down from above the blight clouds, create sealed “safe zones,” design gas-masks (which did not become very sophisticated until the 20th century) and build new and strange weapons to fend off the hordes of rotters who still infest the streets over a decade after the Boneshaker crisis. The remains of old Seattle and how its human denizens deal with both the toxic blight gas and the zombies that it creates form the speculative brain candy for the book, and overall I found it to be an interesting mix.
Where Boneshaker Could Have Been Better
While I think the book started out very well, it didn’t quite live up to its potential in my opinion. The first thing I noticed that shook my confidence in how well this book would live up to the promise made in the first chapters was that the majority of people that Zeke and especially Briar ran into were far too nice. This story made me think quite a bit of an inverted Wizard of Oz story, in part because we have protagonists who enter a dark and hostile land filled with terrors with a masked, evil genius wizard at the center of it all (who may or may not be Leviticus Blue). Given that basic structure, and the tenor of most zombie stories, I expected the average denizens of the city to be more threatening, distrustful, duplicitous, suspicious, and flat out dangerous to newcomers like Zeke and Briar than they were. Outlaws and survivors in the city revere the legacy of Maynard Wilkes, and that acts as a surprising shield for both mother and son, but even given that I didn’t sense much menace from any of the characters, including the out-and-out villains. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop (for that surprising, yet inevitable betrayal to happen), and then I realized that it was never going to, which took the teeth out of the tension the book was trying to build. Even the principle antagonist, the grand poobah inventor who was running the criminal rackets at the heart of the broken city wasn’t very intimidating; we were told he was evil and repulsive, but it wasn’t quite felt.
The overall lack of menace from other characters made the action fall kind of flat, because I never felt that our principle characters were in enough danger for me to get worried. They have close calls to be sure, but it failed to tantalize as much as it could have. While that dynamic between Zeke and Briar felt very real and drove me through the story beyond the difficulties I have just discussed, other characters felt kind of flat and like they were, occasionally, just there to deliver exposition about what was going on or how the city was run or what this gadget was, etc.
Of course, my feeling of missed potential for real, nail-biting tension might just be a matter of taking the wrong approach to the book. I expected dark and dreary, with characters in harsh settings that reveal the dark and un-trusting sides of human nature. What I got was a much lighter read than that, zombies and all. I think that if I went into this looking just for a light (though not light-hearted) adventure that I would have been more satisfied.
This book started out with a lot of promise for me, and I was definitely on board when things got rolling, but the peril the characters were placed failed to excite or worry me. This definitely affected my investment in the story, and while overall Boneshaker was an enjoyable experience, I can’t help but feel that it would have been more so of it pushed the envelope more and showed the world as nastier and more brutish. If you go into this book expecting something lighter, however, you should still be able to enjoy it.