Sunday, 1 February 2015
The last novel I read before my temporary exile from the form, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, probably wasn't the best book to go on hiatus with. It's a highly-rated steampunk novel that kicks off the Clockwork Century series.
The American Civil War is ongoing in the 1880s; the point of divergence comes when 'Stonewall' Jackson didn't die as he did in real life. Fifteen years before the start of the novel, downtown Seattle was destroyed by the eponymous device, created by Leviticus Blue, the inevitable mad scientist. The device unleashed the Blight, which created a breed of the walking dead. Within months, a wall had been constructed around the affected area, containing the Blight.
There's a lot of backstory to take in, and it's all relevant in one way or another. One of our protagonists, Briar Wilkes, is the widow of Leviticus Blue, ostracised by society because of her husband's actions, as well as by her father's - he was the man who freed prisoners from the cells to let them escape the Blight. Our other protagonist, her son Ezekiel, sets off on a quest behind the wall in an attempt to clear his father's name.
The backstory is handled pretty well, considering the amount of it there is, but some of it is a little too contrived. The final twist could have been handled better. One thing about having two point of view characters is that we knew their thoughts - having the final reveal executed through one of them felt contrived, especially when the character had been thinking about it on a number of occasions without revealing specifics. It's from things like this that the feeling of distance between the reader and the characters arises, and I'd say it's this distance which is the biggest problem of Boneshaker.
There's a lot to like about Boneshaker. There's no pretensions of grandeur about it: it's a rollicking adventure with airships and kooky steampunk devices and crimelords and zombies, and it's unashamed about all of that. It wants you along for the ride. The writing has a good pace to it (though it lacks in subtlety and power when compared to such as Perdido Street Station). But there's a nagging distance between reader and characters that stops you from getting properly involved. You can't quite forget that you are reading a book, that it is just words on a page.
I've seen other reviews criticising Boneshaker for doing nothing with the idea of a divergence from the reality of the American Civil War. It's not a criticism I would share. Boneshaker read very much like an introduction to a new world where other stories happened to be taking place at the same time. That a war is going on contemporaneously doesn't mean it has to force itself on the narrative; sometimes world building for the sake of a rich world doesn't have to be a focus of the narrative. Besides, I have a feeling that those elements will be used later in the Clockwork Century series.
In all, Boneshaker was a fun diversion. Nothing too challenging, or too world-changing, but a fun read, despite its problems. I'll probably be back to read the second in the series at some point. But first, I'd better get this essay planned...