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By Cherie Priest
Tor / ISBN: 978-0-76531-841-1
Ah, steampunk! The very definition of a literary subgenre, steampunk tales fit not only within the general category of science-fiction (in that the storylines usually hinge on technology that has not yet been invented), but then bury this uninvented technology within a past that never was, usually the Victorian Age to be specific, imagining various scientific breakthroughs that never actually happened and then imagining what life would've been like if those breakthroughs had been real (for example, the idea of computers actually being invented in the 1860s instead of 1960s, the concept behind one of the first steampunk novels to really define the genre, 1990's The Difference Engine by famed "cyberpunk" authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, resulting in a room-sized monstrosity covered in gleaming brass and powered by steam, thus explaining the origins of the term itself). And thus just like serial-killer crime thrillers or Georgian romance tales, so too does steampunk have a very specific audience in mind, and so too does its success mostly depend on its ability to offer up a series of specifically fetishized details that its small, fiercely loyal audience is specifically looking for.
And thus do we come to Cherie Priest's mindblowing new Boneshaker, which as industry fans know has been causing quite a stir over the last few months, seemingly coming out of nowhere to make both Publishers Weekly and Amazon's "Best of 2009" lists, and with such genre veterans as Warren Ellis and Cory Doctorow tripping over their own feet in their attempt to gush more and more about how marvelous it is. And there's a very good reason for this; because this novel is perfect, or at least "perfect" as it's defined within the narrow confines of what makes a genre project truly great. And in fact, this book is so great that I thought I would use my write-up of it today as an excuse to rather wonkily go through step by step and explain where exactly Priest gets things so right; that's how good it is, that it's not just entertaining but can serve as a useful tutorial as well to fellow genre authors who are facing problems with their own projects.
So let's start with what's the most obvious strength of Boneshaker, and what's been getting it so much attention in such a short period -- it's a book with not only a fascinating grand hook behind its plot, but filled with enough fascinating incidental details as well to easily propel a 400-page manuscript. And this of course is where so many genre authors get things wrong, as seen again just last week for example in my review of Peter Crowther's "Forever Twilight" series -- that in their zeal to come up with a great concept to propel their book in general, they forget that an entire three-act storyline needs to be constructed out of that great concept too, leading to stories that often have huge gaping holes in their middles, giant hundred-page sections where literally nothing happens, as the characters essentially sit around having frivolous conversations as they wait for the next lever in that storyline's Grand Concept to kick into gear.
So in Priest's case, she starts with a doozy of a concept, which like I said is basically step one in writing a great genre novel -- she imagines an alternative-history late-1800s, in which the Russians have hired an American mad scientist named Leviticus Blue to construct a giant drilling machine he calls the "Boneshaker," so that they can go prospecting under the ice in Alaska and jump-start the Klondike Gold Rush a good half-century before it happened in real life. But something goes terribly wrong in the Seattle basement where Blue is constructing the machine (an accident? sabotage? the mystery behind the incident is yet another part of the complex storyline), creating a giant sinkhole that essentially collapses the entire downtown district; and that's where the real trouble starts, in that the subterranean rift ends up releasing a poisonous underground gas, which just happens to turn anyone who comes into contact with it into a flesh-eating zombie. And since Washington is still a territory instead of a state, the US government wants nothing to do with this accident's complicated and expensive clean-up; and so as a sloppy stop-gap measure, the residents of Seattle basically build a giant 200-foot wall around downtown, turning the entire district into a yellow-haze-filled wasteland of wrecked Victorian parlors and the rotting undead, along with a small community of gas-mask-wielding smugglers, criminals and other libertarians, who have carved out a hardscrabble existence for themselves through an ingenious series of underground tunnels and basement living spaces, filled with clean air from impossibly long tubes snaking over the walls and industrial-strength bellows run by sweaty Chinese laborers.
Yeah, an astonishing concept, like I said, but then Priest backs this up with a whole series of smaller developments, all of them related to the main Grand Concept but pedestrian enough to fuel the page-to-page action that keeps the manuscript moving forward: a gang war within this underground community; a diluted version of this poisonous fog called "yellow sap" that those on the outside use as a recreational drug, basically Priest's version of opium; the owners of the weaponized zeppelins who transport this yellow sap in and out of the contaminated zone; the steel-helmeted Hessian criminal warlord who may or may not be the surviving, horribly disfigured Dr. Blue. And that leads us to the second big thing that Priest gets right in Boneshaker, which is that all the truly great genre novels in history are ones filled with startlingly unique visions; and here Priest is just overflowing with such visions, delivering mental image after mental image that most of us never even thought possible until she came up with them, deftly combining steampunk with a post-apocalyptic zombie tale, a first-person-shooter videogame, and the John Carpenter classics Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China (which let's not forget, was originally meant to be a steampunk tale itself, until the producers fired the first screenwriters and updated the story from the 1880s to 1980s). After all, this is the particular fetishistic detail that fuels both steampunk and science-fiction in general, the delivering of stunning visions of technology that never was; and here Priest does a superlative job, not only with the grand scheme of things but all the way down to its gritty details.
And that leads us to the third big thing Priest gets right here; that like so many of the best genre projects in history, she comes up with a grand mythology that informs the entire book and more, while still not getting lost in telling this one specific story. Because for those who don't know, Boneshaker is actually only the first volume of a coming trilogy Priest calls the "Clockwork Century," a sweeping look at an entire alternative 1800s, one in which the Civil War has turned into a twenty-year Vietnam-like bloody stalemate, and where the Republic of Texas discovers oil a good 50 years before they do in real life, funding a this-time successful revolution which leads to them now being their own sovereign nation. All of these things inform this first novel of the trilogy, and especially when it comes to the dueling airships which make up an entire beguiling subplot on their own (one of the many things that has led to the Civil War lasting so long in the first place, the invention of a modern-style Air Force out of armored balloons, a technology that is perfected much more quickly by the Confederacy); yet Priest doesn't allow this mythology to spin out of control either, but rather doles it out in these delicious little scoops, making you constantly wanting a little more just like the best genre projects do.
And that leads us to the fourth thing Priest does right with Boneshaker, the crucial yet subtle element that eludes so many mediocre genre projects that could've been great; she takes the time and attention to populate this fantastical environment with very real-feeling, highly complex characters, thus corralling this insane plotline and grand mythology and bringing it down to a human level that we can intimately relate to. For example, the entire story itself is told through the eyes of Dr. Blue's widow, the proud yet frazzled single mother Briar Wilkes, who only gets involved in this mess in the first place in an attempt to rescue her smart yet naive teenage son Zeke, who one day sneaks into the contaminated zone in an attempt to gather proof that the father he never knew was in fact not guilty of deliberately causing the sinkhole for material gain, as the 15-year-old popular rumor that has ruined his reputation has it. This essentially boils the entire book down into a family drama, which is nice enough on its own; but now add all the morally dubious yet sympathetic people the two meet along their separate journeys, from the massive yet kindhearted airship captain Jeremiah to the mechanical-armed tough-talking saloon owner Lucy, not to mention the dozens of fully realized incidental characters along the way.
Add all of these things together, and you get what you see here in Boneshaker, a book that literally could not be written better than it currently is, which is why today it receives a perfect score of 10 among those who are already genre fans; but of course, keep in mind that this definitely is a genre project when all is said and done, which is why its general score is a bit lower, because don't forget that in order for a book to score in the high 9s here at CCLaP, it must be able to transcend its intended audience and appeal to a large general crowd as well, which this book definitely does not. It is for sure the book to try if you've always been curious about steampunk, and want to pick the absolute best of the genre so to not waste your time; but if you simply have no interest in steampunk at all, you will be unable to see this book as anything other than ridiculously silly no matter how well it's written, a fact which should be tempered against all my glowing praise of it today. That said, I'm confident in proclaiming that it will appeal to most people out there, and of course for existing genre fans it should immediately be moved to the top of your reading queue; needless to say that it'll be making CCLaP's own "Best of 2009" list coming next month, and that I'm now eagerly awaiting the release of volume two in the series (Clementine, coming from Subterranean Press next summer, which is apparently about Civil War spies and is partly set in Chicago -- hmm!).
Out of 10: 9.0, or 10 for steampunk fans