Written by Jess Peacock
“My stuff tends to skew dark,” explains novelist Cherie Priest, author of the Hugo Award nominated novel Boneshaker. “But I’m comfortable with that. I kind of bounce around between genres.” Considered a vanguard of steampunk, Priest’s Boneshaker creates a densely imaginative alternate 1880 (“I don't let the facts get in the way of a good story”) where a large section of Seattle has been walled off from the rest of the world after a massive drill, the titular Boneshaker, inadvertently unleashes an ominous gas that transforms those who inhale it into the walking dead.
More akin to the late 1960’s television series The Wild, Wild West (“It’s absolutely an early steampunk work”) than the typical Victorian-era British locales most associated with the subgenre, Boneshaker nevertheless delivers the expected trappings with crudely fabricated zeppelins, peculiar pneumatic powered weapons, and mechanized surgically grafted prosthetics. “Steampunk is a lot of fun,” Priest says. “It has these undercurrents of conservationism (it's very reduce/reuse/recycle in its philosophy), and it overlaps nicely with the do-it-yourself movement.”
“There's a great deal of neat stuff going on in the subculture right now,” Priest continues. “It's really exploding all over the country, so I'm thrilled and proud to be part of it.” This upsurge in the popularity of steampunk is undoubtedly due in some small part to the hybridization of other genres found in Boneshaker. By infusing Romero-like walking dead into the mix, Priest cracks open the door to prospective readers who wouldn’t normally be concerned with the exploits of their goggle-wearing brethren. “Steampunk,” she lightheartedly explains, “is what happens when Goths discover brown.” For horror aficionados, however, the zombies of Boneshaker may prove wanting, as they exist more for nudging characters toward their narrative destinations, and less as a tangible threat to the cast of characters. Aside from one disposable individual succumbing to zombification (due to the gas and not an attack), the undead hordes in Boneshaker seem to be nothing more than a pointless piece of window dressing feigning horror legitimacy.
This use of such a menagerie of styles can be traced back to Priest’s adolescence, where an appreciation for many of the classic genre writers may not have been encouraged by her family, but was certainly tolerated. “My first big influences were the horror and mystery writers of the nineteenth century, mostly Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. Those were the first writers I loved. I wasn't allowed to read much fiction, but if it was old enough to qualify as ‘literature’ then sometimes I could get away with it.” These traditional brush strokes bleed through in Boneshaker, as the main villain Minnericht bears a distinct philosophical similarity to Professor Moriarty (as well as a physical one to Cobra Commander), the mysterious and brilliant arch-nemesis to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
Packed with such a potentially interesting cast culled from classic westerns and science-fiction stories alike, Boneshaker works overtime at creating its share of memorable players, not the least of these being the aforementioned Minnericht. “First and foremost, it has to be about people,” Priest explains of her work. “I’ve read some books with outstanding world building and magic systems, but they have no soul if they don't have characters for people to relate to.” Despite this mandate, while Boneshaker succeeds in creating an exquisitely organic world, it unfortunately fails to similarly render the characters inhabiting the story. Briar, the heroine, and her son Zeke show very little growth or internal development, accompanying the reader from one glorious steampunk set piece to the next with very little emotion or heart. Furthermore, while the protagonists interact with the astonishing and often alarming world around them, they ultimately have very little impact on their environment as a whole.
This is not to say that Boneshaker entirely fails as a novel. At times, Priest’s prose succeeds as an epic work of family and loyalty, tapping into parental concerns of misshapen legacies, adolescent rebellion, and heartbreaking self-realization. Combined with the inspired world called forth in the novel, Boneshaker is at least deserving of the attention it has garnered, even if it shouldn’t be highly recommended to a darker audience.