Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Year: 2009
Read: July 2013
Where It Came From: Bought It
Rating: 4 Gasmask Filters
The Quick and Dirty:
Briar Wilkes is scraping by in the outskirts of 1860s Seattle outside the walled up city, trying to raise her teenage son Zeke. Unfortunately, she is also living with the aftermath of her long-gone husband Leviticus Blue’s mining machine invention, the Boneshaker, tearing through downtown Seattle 15 years past and opening up a vein of gas that turns those who breathe it into zombies. People blame her and Zeke for Levi’s follies, but she’s never talked much about the past to her son, until one day he takes off with a gasmask and gun to break into downtown Seattle in search of the facts. He doesn’t know what he’s in for in there, so Briar will have to head in after him, relying on drug-running sky pirates and Seattle’s remaining living denizens to avoid the rotters and also a power-hungry inventor expanding his empire over the walled city, who sounds eerily similar to old Leviticus Blue… A bit slow for the first half of the book, but things really picked up in the second half, and it became an action-packed adventure full of great characters. I look forward to reading more books set in this world!
The Wordy Version:
I saw Cherie Priest back in May on various panels at Phoenix Comicon. Much like John Scalzi, her books had been on my mental TBR list for quite some time, and hearing her talk about this one and her other books was the push I needed to bump them up to the top of the list. I honestly don’t know why I didn’t read this one sooner—I’ve been on a mild steampunk kick since 2011, and this is one of the seminal classics of the genre.
So now here I am two months later, and I’ve read it! It was a really fun read, although I was a little apprehensive at the beginning. The first half of the book felt kind of slow to me, like not much was happening. Which was very confusing, because there was lots of stuff happening! I would say to myself, gee, I hope we get some action in this story soon. And then I would have to fire back, what do you mean? There’s plenty of action! Sons running away, Briar jumping down an air tube into Seattle, zombies attacking, people with guns in their walking sticks! How can this not be exciting? And I would miserably reply to myself, I don’t know. It just doesn’t make any sense. (To clarify, the me feeling like nothing was happening was what didn’t make sense—the story itself made perfect sense.) So I really can’t pinpoint why I felt that way—maybe it had something to do with that for the first half of the book it felt like Zeke and Briar were just bobbing around the city from people to people and place to place without really accomplishing anything or furthering the plot much? I don’t know. That’s just how it felt to me, and I was afraid the whole book would be like that and then I would be disappointed because I was so psyched to read this one…but happy to say, things picked up and I was able to forget I’d felt that way early in the book and have a lot of fun reading it.
I enjoyed the alternate history, prodded and nudged until it was able to not only accommodate this steampunk imagining of a world, but also make it almost seem like a natural progression of events. The Civil War has been drawn out longer due to a train line being built in a different direction than it was historically, the development of war machines, and I think Europe getting involved, if I’m remembering correctly. As for Seattle, Washington is just a territory at the time, but the Klondike Gold Rush being moved up in history allows Seattle to have a greater population than it truly did at the time. It all fits together very neatly, and it’s clear that the author put a lot of thought into the creation of a world where readers wouldn’t have to suspend their belief too much to make a steampunk 19th century America seem convincing. On a related note, I also appreciated how she created reasons for all the steampunk trappings, instead of just using them to give flavor to the world. Poisonous gas in the city? Of course they’ll need gas masks! Zombies attracted to the sound of guns being fired? Then someone will have invented a sort of sound wave gun to stun them! I remembered her talking about that a bit at Phoenix Comicon, and so I was able to appreciate it while I was reading.
As for characters, Briar was the one I connected with most, although at first it was a little difficult. That was mostly because she shields her thoughts regarding the past she so clearly wants to forget from even herself, and so it was difficult to get a read on what had really happened with her father Maynard, and her husband Leviticus Blue, and other important things that happened before the events of the book. But I can see the intention behind that, and I enjoyed the way these plot threads unfolded over the course of the book. Especially awesome was the skillful way Briar’s complex relationship with Leviticus was laid out bit by bit, feeling by feeling, until it coalesced into a whole that the reader was able to grasp, without explaining the heck out of it. Briar herself is great—tough, brave, a survivor. She may not be the type to…I don’t know, bake cookies and crochet booties for her son, but it’s clear how much she loves him. Zeke I didn’t connect with right away, but that’s probably because I’ve never been a 15 year old boy. He seemed to bounce around the city in a more hapless fashion than Briar did, but he was young, naïve, inexperienced…and by the end he’d done a lot of growing up.
The side characters were fantastic—the air pirates, Jeremiah Swakhammer, Lucy the mechanical armed woman…it would be easy to stray into caricature territory with characters like these, but she never does. They are always grounded, interesting, and real.
The writing was good—by turns humorous and suspenseful, and full of Western Territory flavor. Eminently readable! Which is unfortunately not always the case in published novel things these days, so I’m always happy to read a book where the writing is smooth and natural and good, with nothing sticking out that makes you feel like you’re reading a draft or need to suppress the urge to grab a red pen. When Briar finally meets Dr. Minnericht, the villainous inventor running the show in Seattle, the tension and suspense were thick enough to be sliced up like cheese. From about that point on I couldn’t put the book down until I’d finished.
On a final nerdy note, I enjoyed the framing device for the story. At the beginning I wasn’t sure how it was going to tie in, but when it did it was a nice and satisfying way to tie the story up.
Overall, a fun adventure that put checks in so many of my geek boxes it’s not even funny. Zombies, airships, mad scientists, history…it’s a veritable crock pot of geeky goodness! It will be joining my pantheon of steampunk favorites, along with Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices trilogy, and Gordon Dahlquist’s Glass Books of the Dream Eaters trilogy (although that one may by more gas lamp fantasy, now that I know what that means). I’d recommend it for tried and true steampunk fans, those looking to test the genre waters, general SFF fans, Seattle fans, zombie fans…the list goes on and on.
Have you read anything by Cherie Priest before? What’s next on your to read list? As soon as I finished this one I had a strangely powerful hankering to read Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and I couldn’t figure out the connection between the two in my brain that made me want to read that one next. Could it be genre? This one’s steampunk, and that one’s a sort of modernist fairy tale, so probably not. Time it takes place? This one’s Civil War era, and that one’s WWII/Fairyland, so dead end there, too. The writing styles are quite different as well, so I was stymied until I realized…it takes place in historical Seattle! And Cat Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White takes place in historical San Francisco. Does that count as the Pacific Northwest, too? I think it did, at least for connection purposes in my brain. Mystery solved, yay!