Monday, November 28, 2011

Literary Frontiers: Boneshaker

by Cat Connolly

Literary Frontiers is a series in the blog which gives us the chance to offer our perspective on both new and established science fiction and speculative fiction books. The series will publish around twice a month, or whenever one of us can finish and post one of our most recent reading projects. I guess that means once this November.

The selection this time is Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, nominated for a Hugo award and the winner of the Locus award for best science fiction novel. The piece is a masterpiece of Steampunk that did more than its part to breathe life into the genre.

The review follows after the (steam-powered) jump.  

by Cherie Priest
Tor Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1841-1

When I would think of Seattle, Washington, I used to imagine drizzling rain, indie coffee houses, and grunge rock. After reading Cherie Priest’s "Boneshaker," my idealized view of the coastal city has been scratched, gored, gnawed upon, and, in short, become more awesome. Here’s the story that changed my mind... 

In 1860, the promise of Klondike gold lured many would-be millionaires to the northwest corner of the continent. Eager to mine the deep veins of gold running beneath the growing city of Seattle, the Russians offered a hefty reward to any scientist capable of creating a device that could drill through the rocky earth to retrieve said treasure (here’s the alternative history). So, one Dr. Leviticus Blue invented the Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine, a brass and cog marvel of steam technology (here’s the Steampunk). On its trial run, the Boneshaker destroyed half of downtown Seattle, releasing a gaseous substance called “the Blight” that turned anyone who inhaled it into shambling “Rotters” (and here come the zombies).

The main story begins sixteen years later; the city has been walled up to keep the Blight and those it’s infected separated from everyone else, and Dr. Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes, is a social outcast, raising her teenaged son, Zeke, on the edge of town. When Zeke takes it upon himself to sneak into the damned city in an attempt to clear his father’s tarnished name, Briar must face airship pirates, deadly Blight gas, hordes of Rotters and her own cloudy past to bring him out alive. 

Now, you might be wondering, “What the heck is this ‘Steampunk’ Cat keeps talking about?” In short, Steampunk is science fiction set in the Victorian era, where technology is composed of steam, clockwork, and a nebulous substance called “aether.” Notable examples of Steampunk fiction include Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and the works of Jules Verne. In writing Boneshaker, the first in her “Clockwork Century” series, Cherie Priest set out to create the magnum opus for the genre, and to great acclaim: the novel was a nominee for both the Hugo and Nebula awards in the best novel category, and won the Locus Award for “Best Science Fiction Novel” in 2010. 

"Boneshaker" took me on such a wild, exhilarating adventure that it spurred me to start a book club here at Watermark to share it and other books of its fantastic, eccentric ilk (coming this June – look out for it!). But if the description of “insane, zombie-infested science fiction” turns you off, fear not: this is not just another gratuitous pulp novel. Above all, "Boneshaker" is a story about a mother’s love for her son, a son’s misguided admiration for his father, and the tenacity of a people who refuse to surrender their home to inevitable destruction. And Briar Wilkes, braving undead fiends with only a gasmask and a shotgun, is one tough mom you won’t soon forget.

If my mom wasn’t already the coolest, I’d have a new heroine. 

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