Steampunk is an intriguing sub-sub-genre of fantastyka. Ian Macleod’s The Light Ages, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, Paul Di Filippo’s Steampunk Trilogy, and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine are books that dig at the political and social ideas resulting from alternate technological versions of history. But there is another side for which socio-politics are but another color on the palette of a more aesthetic, action-oriented experience. Mechanical body parts, dirigibles, steam power, and a 19th century-esque setting are just some of the most recognizable tropes featured in Alastair Reynolds Terminal World, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, Gail Carriger’s Soulless, and James Blaylock’s Homnculus. Running with the visually-focused side, Cherie Priest’s 2009 Boneshaker touches the major points of steampunk with motherly sentiment.
Boneshaker’s first few pages start off a bit, well, shaky. Opening on a historical synopsis, it tells of Leviticus Blue (great name) and his boneshaking machine that one day in the 1850s went mad and tore its way beneath the earth, managing to loot Seattle’s biggest banks in the process. Rupturing veins of poison gas en route, a madness settled upon the residents in the resulting atmospheric milieu, a madness mitigated only by the construction of a massive wall around the city. The living and the living dead trapped within, those on the outskirts have been left to squeak by however they can, the entire region in tatters. With the Civil War burgeoning in the south, the Pacific Northwest is primed to fall into chaos.
Disappearing immediately in the aftermath of the great boneshaker’s raid, Leviticus Blue has left an ambiguous legacy to his daughter Briar and his grandson Zeke. Perceived as an enemy as often as a hero, Briar does not advertize her ancestry while Zeke fully believes his grandfather to be a symbol of the good of greater Seattle. His belief causing him to take drastic action one day, he heads into the walled city looking to vindicate the family name. Learning of her son’s rashness, Briar kicks herself for not being more honest in the boy’s youth, and follows her son to rescue him before the myriad dangers of walled Seattle take his life. Thieves, crumbling buildings, zombies, warring airships, rogues, and a mad scientist who may or may not be Leviticus himself lurking in the shadows, Boneshaker is a rollercoaster of action and adventure.
Boneshaker is thus filled with all the excitement and fun of the aesthetic side of steampunk one could want: exploring a ruined city, escaping zombies, dirigible chases, masked men, mysterious helpers, brass tech, goggles, and more. Priest at times applies a little unnatural force to bring about desired scenes and sequences, but the larger pieces fit. Briar, Zeke,and those they meet, while never fully achieving the third dimension, will satisfy the endless quest of Amazon and goodreads readers: likeable characters. Part Indiana Jones, part I Am Legend, and part Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Boneshaker is an easy novel to relax into.
Though plot and steampunkery are by far the main focuses of Boneshaker, there is a minor tertiary aspect worth mentioning. Priest aware of her portrayal of race and gender, the text is identifiable with modern political correctness. Never delving deeply into the underlying dynamics of racial tension in mid 19th century US history (Tor published the novel after all), on the surface black people and white people, yellow people and dead people occupy the little niches of story, while the concerns of a white woman and her son anchor the text. This latter aspect gets slightly more treatment; the opening of the story and its conclusion have impact at the emotional and family level, even if all that happens between is slave to action and drama.
In the end, Boneshaker is a posterizable example of the steampunk aesthetic, but stereotype done in readable, even enjoyable fashion. Priest invests enough effort in character, setting, and plot to achieve a minor degree of singularity in each, even if the overarching import is middle of the road in terms of thematic aspiration. Thus, where Alastair Reynolds’ Terminal World also has the ‘necessary’ visual elements of steampunk, it fails to create a connection with the reader as does Priest’s usage of style and panache. The result is a fun, adventurous novel of modest ambition. But for fans of steampunk, it must be treated as a core text.