Sunday, July 18, 2010

Book Review: "Boneshaker" (SPOILERS)

I finished reading Cherie Priest's novel Boneshaker the other evening.  Having taken a bicycle jaunt to return it to the library this morning, time for my review.  Spoilers contained therein.

Starting off, I do like the concepts and overall aesthetic of steampunk.  Furthermore, it's in my interest that steampunk novels like Boneshaker do well, since my unfinished novel Escape from the Wastelands (and its planned sequels) and an idea I have for a series of novels featuring air pirates all fit into the steampunk genre.  I also picked out the book because I remember reading that it featured a strong female protagonist and I figured I could use help with that.

If by "strong," they mean "resourceful," "decisive," and "not taking crap," protagonist Briar Wilkes works well.  In Boneshaker, her teenage son Eziekel, seeking to prove that his father Leviticus Blue did not build his gigantic drilling machine to rob Seattle's banks, ventures into the walled-off city of Seattle (walled off because the titular machine instead released poison gas that turned people into zombies) in search of proof.  Briar, upon discovering her son is gone, proceeds to beat one of his druggie friends into revealing where he'd went, then persuades the crew of a disreputable airship to drop her off over the city so she can find him.  When confronted by a local mad scientist who has some people convinced he's really her husband, she proceeds to chew him out rather than quiver in fear of him.

Points for that.  Briar is a good female protagonist who is not a simpering wimp, nor is she the "Jane Kickass" overreaction.

However, the book is a little slow-moving, especially the beginning.  I was willing to push through this, but one of the writing lessons I've learned is to not have slow beginnings, lest the reader become bored and put the book back on the shelf.  I also did not like how it turned out Briar had killed her husband upon finding him in the basement with bags of money stolen from the banks after his initial test run and he gave her the choice between leaving with him on the Boneshaker or dying of the poison gas along with the rest of Seattle.  She knew this the entire time, but it did not show up in her interior monologue when facing off Dr. Minnercht, the mad scientist who was using her husband's inventions, even though this would be an entirely appropriate time for her to think that if not bring it up in conversation.

The alternate-history aspect of the book is also somewhat shaky.  Apparently Britain's intervention to break the Union blockade and to support the Confederacy with soldiers, the construction of the trans-continental railroad through the South, and the continued survival of Stonewall Jackson have led to the Civil War lasting 18 years.  Apparently Priest has got a timeline written somewhere--she's writing other books set in the "Clockwork Century" universe and there are references to an independent Republic of Texas discovering oil as being a contributing factor to the timeline--but a war lasting decades would exhaust everyone's economy and manpower and would provoke internal problems for all sides (draft riots in the North, slave risings in the South, industrial unrest in Britain).

It would have been better in terms of plausibility if the South won the Civil War with British help, there was a "steampunk weapons arms race" between the US and the British/Confederacy, and the novel took place during a second war over a decade later.

Still, considering how few steampunk books there actually are and how, despite there being older books that can be classified this way, the modern steampunk subculture is in its infancy, I think Boneshaker is a worthy effort.

6 out of 10.

I think a Boneshaker movie would actually be better than the book, since pages of text would translate to seconds of film, remedying the slowness issues.  Exciting action sequences (battles between air pirates, zombie fights, the residents of Seattle storming Minnercht's lair, etc) would thus take up a greater proportion and the movie would be more fun to watch.

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