Book Review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

I had originally planned to delve back into some classical literature, preferably something Greek, to break out of my Roman-only shell just a tad. Unfortunately, in Tokyo, when it comes to ancient texts translated into English, the pickings be slim. Lucky for me, the good people at Kinokuniya had put shiny “New Arrival” stickers on several sci-fi selections, including Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. Now, I’d never heard of a Boneshaker, nor a Cherie Priest, but Terry Brooks assured me this book was Priest’s breakout masterpiece on the back cover. And who am I to argue with the author of the novelization of  Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace? Some of you might be thinking: “why is he picking on Terry Brooks? leave her alone!” Well, it’s not a she. Terry Brooks is a man! A man with a woman’s name. That is not right.

So anyway, I bought Boneshaker, and I also read it. The novel takes place in 1880 in an alternate universe steampunk Seattle that is infested with zombies. Some of you may be thinking: “What?! That sounds crazy enough to be awesome!” You’d be wrong because the actual product is predictable and uninteresting. However, this would be a poor review if I left it at that, so I will grab my author’s responsibility by the horns and provide a more in-depth look at this mess of a book.

In the 1860’s the Soviets paid an inventor named Leviticus Blue tons of money to create a machine that could drill through ice in the harsh conditions of Alaska to get Yukon gold. I meant Russians, sorry. Soon, Blue told the world he was ready to test his Incredible Bone-shaking Drilling Machine. The next day the ground under the banks in Seattle (conveniently all located in the same place) began to shake and crumble, and gas seethed out of the recently dug underground tunnels. The gas turned people into zombies.  Fast forward 15 years, and downtown Seattle is surrounded by a wall, which keeps gases and zombies within. I wondered how a wall could keep gas inside, and the author explains zombie gas is heavy. That’s convenient. Naturally, the survivors living on the outskirts of the old city outside the walls blame Blue and the Boneshaker for all their misfortunes, which makes life tough for his widow and son. The son does not believe his father was evil, and sneaks back into the zombie city to try and find evidence to clear his name. His mother sneaks in after him because saving dumb shits who happen to be their sons is what mothers do best. Along the way they meet air pirates, crazy scientists, conniving Chinese people, nice Chinese people, bandits, bandits with hearts of gold, drug dealers….and zombies! That’s the basic premise of the novel.

The book is about 500 pages long, but its plot calls for maybe 80-100, so naturally the pacing is terrible. For a book about zombies and death gas there’s also very little tension. I found myself skimming through the zombie chase scenes because they weren’t scary or interesting. There’s a few plot twists sprinkled throughout; unfortunately, every single one is predictable and uninspired. The whole book hinges on the premise of history’s subjectivity, and warping of figures and the truth over time….and then at the end we find out every single thing everyone thought was true. Nothing had been warped or changed…so…ok.

The characters are all pretty boring. The son is bland, and a complete idiot to boot. The mom is a cold bitch for the first 40 pages, and then just turns hysterical for the rest of the novel. the bad guys are uninspired caricatures of stuff we’ve all seen before. All the renegades and hard boiled bandits we meet inside the city are actually nice helpful people, which works out well  for the mom and son because it keeps them from dying immediately upon entering Seattle. But it’s hard to believe for the reader. So, not one of the survivors hardened by 15 years of living with zombies and gas and evil scientists is toughened beyond helping a mom and son? Not one? I guess Priest has a pretty optimistic view of human nature.

The book also has tons of historical inaccuracies. I know that sounds stupid because we’re talking about historical fiction, but what’s the point of even setting it in 1880 Seattle if you’re going to have landmarks appear 40 years before they were built? Why not have it take place in 1905? Can’t you have a steampunk novel take place in 1905? I’m surprised they didn’t fly a steam blimp into the space needle and grab a cup of Starbucks.

I really don’t know what else to say. The book was uninteresting, and I’m finding it hard to keep writing about it. In case it wasn’t clear, I don’t recommend Boneshaker.

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