I was all pumped up for this ambitious mash-up of historical fiction, zombie lore, and steampunk, but I went in with caution just because it was so ambitious. I’m glad I was cautious, otherwise I would have been severely disappointed.
Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century) by Cherie Priest is an alternate timeline, Civil War-era novel that takes place in and around Gold Rush-settled Seattle. (The Klondike Gold Rush takes place a bit earlier in this timeline). Seattle’s citizens have been forced out of the main city due to damage caused by Leviticus Blue (ha ha, Levi Blue… jeans, get it?) and his Boneshaker machine, which he created for the Russians to drill through Alaskan ice. But the Boneshaker went berserk and gobbled up much of underground Seattle, causing cave-ins, unstable foundation, and a release of a toxic gas called “the Blight.” It’s not explained how, but the Blight causes zombies, so downtown Seattle is walled up and neglected as the Seattleites escape to the outskirts. Oh, and the Blight can be manufactured into a nasty recreational drug, too.
Ezekiel Wilkes wants to know all about his father, the infamous, but dead, Leviticus Blue, so he runs away from home and sneaks into Blight-ridden Seattle. His mama, the calloused but tiny Briar Wilkes, follows after him. The story alternates their perspectives as they ride airships, outrun zombies, and hang out underground with a colorful cast of characters– the peculiar and bold folks who never left Seattle.
Sounds amazing, right? Here’s what I liked:
1. Diverse and interesting cast of characters The residents of the Blight are a tough and resourceful lot, all of whom try to maintain normality by adapting to underground living. Some of the characters are trustworthy, and some of them are baddies, but it’s not meant to be a mystery. Most of the time you can figure out who’s who.
2. Women rule. Few women populate the Blight underground, but those who do are some of the most powerful characters in the story. I loved Lucy, the bartender with one mechanical arm. I was also intrigued by the princess Angeline, an elderly Native American loner who seems to know everything that happens in the city.
3. Steampunk technology It was interesting to see how Priest’s characters applied steampunk technology to deal with the Blight and the zombies. A complex system of towering yellow tubes and giant billows operated by Chinese settlers pumps the Blight out of the living quarters and into the atmosphere. Also, Dr. Minnericht’s Doozy Dazer (Daisy, for short) is a pretty ingenius stun weapon against the zombies (but we don’t know how it works).
What I didn’t like:
1. Overreaching and contrived. Like I said, this is an ambitious story, but it felt almost like Priest just cherry-picked everything she likes about SF and crammed it all into one big story. It didn’t feel organic. Zombies? Check. Airships? Check. Drug abuse? Check. Oh, random airship battle over swarms of zombies? Check. It seems like a great combination of elements, but the story lacks the depth to explore them all. Maybe apple-cherry-rhubarb pie is good, but it’s the nutmeg, cinnamon, and brown sugar that brings it all together.
Ultimately, the world of The Clockwork Century seems implausible based on what can and cannot be done. Why is it that steampunk technology can create a delicately manufactured robotic arm, but it can’t develop a weapon to annihilate the “rotters”? We can mass-stun them, but we can’t mass burn them? Really?
2. Lack of historical fiction. When I discovered that this book took place in a Civil War alt timeline, I was expecting it to match the hist-fic complexity of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but this story takes place on the west coast, outside of then-United States. It’s on the skirts of the Civil War, so don’t expect a zombified Robert E. Lee to show up at Appomattox.
3. It’s just boring, but I can’t explain why. I was surprised at how slowly I read this book. I think it’s a relatively short book, compared to most of the books I read, but I was never eager to pick it up each day. Finally, I just binge-read the final 30% on Saturday, just so I could move on to a new book. I enjoyed some of the peripheral characters more than I did the main characters, so maybe a book about Lucy would be better. I read that the sequel is from someone else’s perspective, so perhaps that will refresh the series.
Ultimately, I expected more from this book than what I got, but I wasn’t surprised. That seems to be my typical reaction to zombie-related stories, although I’m still pulling for something to surprise me. Interestingly, this whole Civil War-era with zombies and/or steampunk mash-up seems to be a developing into an actual sub-sub-genre, but how many times can you beat that undead warhorse?
Next read: I move from steampunk to cyberpunk with William Gibson’s Neuromancer.