...and within one year from the incident with Dr. Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine, the entire downtown area was surrounded by an immense brick, mortar and stone wall.
The wall stands approximately two hundred feet high - depending on the city's diverse geographic constraints - and it averages a width of fifteen to twenty feet. It wholly encircles the damaged blocks, containing an area of nearly two square miles. Truly, it is a marvel of engineering.
However, within this wall the city spoils, utterly dead except for the rats and crows that are rumored to be there. The gas which still seeps from the ground ruins everything it touches. What once was a bustling metropolis is now a ghost town, surrounded by the surviving and resettled population. These people are fugitives from their hometown, and although many of them relocated north to Vancouver, or south to Tacoma or Portland, a significant number have stayed close to the wall.
They live on the mudflats and up against the hills, in a sprawling nontown most often called the Outskirts; and there, they have begun their lives anew.
Introduction to Boneshaker
Boneshaker is a mash-up of styles. It is, mostly, a mix of steampunk and zombie fiction. It tells the story of an alternate-history Seattle, set in the 1880s, during a still-extant Civil War. In this world, Stonewall Jackson does not die at the Battle of Chancellorsville but instead recovers from his injuries and goes on to lead the Confederacy in a vicious defense, resulting in both sides slogging on fighting a war that both know can only end in the Confederacy's defeat but with the Union unable to bring it about cleanly.
In addition to this divergence from history, there is steampunk tech. The aforementioned Dr. Blue builds a tunnelling machine, the eponymous Boneshaker, for Russian mining interests - but decides to test it by robbing the banks of Seattle. He's a bad egg, Dr. Blue is. Unfortunately for everyone, his tunneling releases an unknown gas - guessed by some to be somehow connected with the subsurface geography of Mt. Rainier - which not only kills and corrodes, but (most horrifically) causes the dead to re-animate into classic zombies, known in the book as 'rotters.'
It is into this world the book delivers us with its opening pages - and into the dreary and grim lives of two of the residents of the Outskirts, one Briar Wilkes and her son Zeke. She is the wife, or widow, of Dr. Leviticus Blue, for which she is reviled - but she is also the daughter of Maynard Wilkes, a lawman who sacrificed himself to save the prisoners at the local jail when the gas - known as the Blight - descended. She is a keeper of secrets, trying to raise her son without telling him what she knows about his male heritage, either one.
So, of course, he decides to find out for himself. Into the ruins of Seattle, its choking lethal sea of Blight gas, and hordes of rotters, where he has discovered rumors that people still live - sealing off their spaces and wearing masks, pumping fresh air in from above the Blight layer. And Briar - Briar has to go after him.
Thus begins the book.
Having finished it, I find myself - ambivalent. The world it builds is a distinct and solid one, for all that (on paper) it might have been built of the stuff of bad zombie movies and victorian science fiction. There are massive steam engines, and zeppelins (staple of steampunk) - Mad Science and repeating rifles share space with classic toxic waste zombies, local history of Seattle and imaginative civil engineering. The story itself is a classic quest, with Big Reveals sprinkled through it. Cherie Priest does a good job of building the mysteries of this Seattle, and handing out some of the answers to us along the way.
But in the end, I felt like I'd read a horribly overextended graphic novel. The lurid scenery had overshadowed the story to some degree, and many of the story's turns and twists felt like Plot Coupons. I think Priest is a good writer - indeed, a much better writer than I'll ever be - but when I put this book down, I felt that I had been entertained for its length but wouldn't take much with me.
I don't want to sound like I'm bashing it. It is entertaining. And, I should fairly note, I am not someone who really enjoys steampunk or zombie fiction, really - so I think what's going on here is that I'm not the intended audience. If either or both of those are your cup of tea, you will probably be in ecstasy. If you enjoy historical tidbits in your fiction, you'll be extra happy.
Priest does do something that many writers can't - I know I certainly can't. She marries an inventive and vivid world with a self-contained and complete story structure. At the end, the fact that she has expended so many of her mystery explanations means that the story feels shorter than it should - but I don't think it could have extended much farther. It takes place in a very, very narrow place, geographically and literarily, and it fills the bounds of that space handily.
Her characters, I have to say, come across as less interesting. They're more stereotypes than developed characters - shaped by their place in the ongoing Plot. Determined Mother, Rebellious Son, Evil Scientists, Dashing Airmen...you could replace many of the names with role descriptions without much changing the impact.
If you're a fan of the setting, then take heart - she is writing more in this series, which has been termed the 'Clockwork Century.' The second book, Dreadnought, shows us more of this war-torn and Mad Science America, complete with enormous steam war machines, Civil War battles, and the strangeness of this different land.
Tor Books. First edition published September 29, 2009.