Cherie Priest’s Hugo-nominated steampunk novel Boneshaker is a rollicking and energetic tale that seamlessly weaves together the two distinct genres of steampunk and zombie fiction. This is a feat in and of itself, and Priest is one of the few people out there to have carried it off, which she does with the same precision and attention to detail that one finds in Unhallowed Metropolis, the originator of the steampunk-zombie match-up. And creating a story in this particular genre mix that approaches the accomplishments of Unhallowed Metropolis is no easy feat.
Boneshaker‘s credentials in both genres are clearly outlined. It is set in the late 19th century, albeit one heavily changed both by the advance of technology and by the horrific events that befall Seattle, the book’s setting, prior to the story’s opening. There are giant industrial machines that truly feel they could have been invented by the Victorians, if only the Victorians had been so inclined, coupled with airships, mad scientists, and more steampunk imagery than one can shake a stick at. Add to this a healthy (or perhaps “unhealthy”) dose of mysterious toxic gas, the reanimate dead, and the consequent walling off Seattle, and one finds a Victorian version of the late 20th century zombie apocalypse.
The background to Boneshaker‘s story is established in a sort of in-character preface provided before the first chapter. This introduction, presented as a history of the incident written in 1880, describes how the Alaskan gold rush prompts a Seattle inventor named Leviticus Blue to construct the titular “Boneshaker,” a massive drilling machine. The Boneshaker goes wild during its test run, devastates downtown Seattle, and releases a toxic gas that kills the city’s inhabitants and turns them into zombies.
The story itself, which takes place many years later, then proceeds from this position, with Seattle still devastated and haunted by the walking dead. Leviticus Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes, and her teen-age son, Zeke, are struggling to get by in the survivor community outside the city wall, haunted by the crippling reputation inherited from both Leviticus and from Briar’s father, a prison guard responsible for releasing his prisoners to save them from the toxic gas. Zeke, like any good plucky young man, goes into the city to make things right, forcing Briar to follow him. From there, the story spirals into countless adventures and thrills punctuated by strong staple characters.
In short, Boneshaker is an exciting story that works very hard to be steampunk and succeeds in its task. The steampunk-zombie match-up provides a thrilling and unusual edge, while the tough and purposeful characters prove to be highly engaging. A truly gripping read.