21 November, 2011

"Boneshaker" by Cherie Priest

Looks like setting myself a schedule has worked out well so far; here I am, back with my review of Boneshaker a few days earlier than promised, and that is because once I started reading I could not put the thing down until I'd finished it.

Boneshaker is the story of Briar Wilkes and the three men in her life: her father, her husband, and her son. Normally a setup like this wouldn't excite me, but the stories here are pretty convoluted and therefore awesome. But let me back up and start with the world Cherie Priest has built here. Imagine it's the late 1800s, the Gold Rush is in full swing, and the Russians have announced a contest, a large sum of money to be awarded to the scientist who proposes a machine to tunnel under the ice in Alaska to get to the fabled wealth of gold underneath. Enter Dr. Leviticus Blue and his Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine, which goes horribly awry on its first trial run, devastating a section of downtown Seattle and tapping into a vein of toxic gas that turns anyone who breathes it into the undead.

Yeah, that's right. This is a zombie steampunk alternate history novel. If you're asking yourself why you haven't read it already, that's a very good question. But I digress.

Once people realize what the Blight gas does to those that breathe it, they put up a huge 200-foot wall around the corrupted parts of the city, containing the gas-- and all those that live inside its bounds. There are the rotters (the zombies) and the Doornails, the people who continue to live inside the walls, relying on gas masks and massive amounts of weapons to stay alive. Dead as a Doornail, get it? Outside the wall, Seattle is pretty bleak. The Blight gas gets into the clouds in small amounts, not enough to hurt anyone, but enough to make the rain toxic, needing to be processed at water distillation plants before it's safe to drink.

Here is where we find Briar Wilkes, who was once Briar Blue, young wife of the famous doctor whose Boneshaker started this whole mess. Now it's sixteen years after the Blight was released, and she's nothing but a hardworking single mother trying to provide for her kid. Which is hard to do when people come around asking about her late husband all the time, and even harder when they come around asking about her late father. Maynard Wilkes was a crook, and a famous one. Famous for his exploits, but most famous for the jailbreak that saved the lives of a dozen men during the first days of the Blight.

With that exposition out of the way, I can now get down to the business of reviewing the story, which is, in a word, awesome. I fell in love with Briar as a protagonist immediately; she's got a lot of emotional depth but wears none of it on her sleeve, and the way she soldiers through being the target of stupid pranks and nosy reporters without punching someone is admirable (and way more restraint than I could show in that situation). She genuinely loves her son, though she doesn't understand him, and the argument they have about the facts of Maynard and Leviticus's pasts made my heart ache. The writing in that scene is so good, you get all of Briar's exhaustion, her conflictedness about all of her relationships, and the fact that the conflict hasn't died just because her father and her husband have.
    She smacked the spoon down on the edge of the basin and grabbed a bowl to dish herself some half-cooked supper, and so she could stop gazing at the child she'd made. He looked nothing like her, but every day he looked a little more like one man, then the other. Depending on the light and depending on his mood he could've been her father, or her husband.
   She poured herself a bowl of bland stew and struggled to keep from spilling it as she stalked past him... From the corner of her eye, she watched Ezekiel clench and unclench his fists. She waited for it. Any moment, and his control would slip, and that wild, wicked look would fill his face with the ghost of his father, and she'd have to close her eyes to shut him out. But the snap didn't occur...
What we get from this scene is also the first look into Zeke's confusion, his struggle to understand the only male role models he has, both of whom are larger than life because of the legends that surround them. The fact that Briar stands in direct opposition to both of them makes it harder for him; the rumors that Leviticus might've been innocent, and the culture of hero-worship that has sprung up around Maynard, when contrasted with the everyday degradation of Briar's hard-working life, make it impossible for him not to think there's a way for them to have something better. He wants that for himself and for her, that much is clear. These two people love each other fiercely, which is a great setup for the split that follows: Zeke goes over the wall to find his parents' old house, hoping to find proof of his father's innocence, proof that the Boneshaker's havoc was an accident and not the insanity of a mad scientist come to fruition. And of course, as soon as Briar finds out, she follows him.

Over the wall is like another world entirely, and yet Priest writes about it with the same vivid description that it feels like the same city. It's brilliantly done. And here's where it starts to get scary. I had been wondering up until this point what kind of zombies the Blight rotters would be: the slow shambling kind, the insane fast kind, or something new altogether. Briar's first encounter with them answers the question. She remembers the first rotters as sluggish, and while dangerous, easy to outrun. Well. The rotters have been inside the walls for fifteen years with a rapidly dwindling food source. They are hungry. And they are pissed.

This scene was one of the scarier things I've read outside a Stephen King book. The tension builds slowly, and from Briar's stark voice the sudden jolt of adrenaline packs even more of a punch. First of all, I've never been to Seattle, but I've heard of Pike Street, and the description of it empty, ruined and tinted sickly yellow by the Blight is chilling. Second, Priest does a perfect job of narrating the rise of Briar's fear, the way time seems to stretch out and every little detail is crystal clear. From the way her foot finds the curb and edges up onto it, to the way her gas mask doesn't quite fit her face, how bad she wants to scratch the itch, but she can't make herself move... I was practically holding my breath. And then we see our first rotters-- or rather, we hear them.
The sound came again. There was a whistle to it, and a moan. It was almost a hiss, and it could've been a strangled gasp. Above all, it was quiet, and it seemed to have no source. It whispered... The whisper rose to a hum, and then stopped... Around the corner, the whispered wheeze rustled through the calm. It halted, then began again, louder. And then it was joined by a second hacking gasp, and a third, and then there were too many to count.
Briar wanted to crush her eyes closed and hide from the noises, but she couldn't even take a moment to peer around the side of the building to see what was making the cacophony, because it was escalating. There was nothing she could do but run... Silence was no longer an option.
Then we see them. And I wish we hadn't. Because, TERROR.
They were not quite on her heels. They were rounding the corner in a loping, ludicrous hobble that was shockingly fast despite the awkward gait. More naked than clothed, and more gray than the proper color of living flesh, the rotters pressed a rollicking lurch that tumbled in a wave. They rolled forward, over everything, past everything, around everything that might have otherwise slowed them down. 
Without fear and without pain, they beat their ragged bodies against the litter in the street and bounced away from it, not deterred and not redirected. They smashed through water-weakened wood and stomped through the corpses of animals, and if any other rotters tripped or fell they crawled a vicious assault over the bodies of their own... The gargling gasps of their furious hunger hit closer to Briar's ears, and she knew they were gaining ground.
This has echoes to me of the scene in 28 Days Later when Jim first comes out of the hospital, finds Piccadilly Circus totally empty, and is subsequently chased by a horde of slavering zombies. Scary as hell.

Going forward, the cast of characters expands. Zeke meets up with Rudy, a sort of Mundungus-Fletcher-esque drunk in a Union uniform who greets Zeke upon his entrance to the city. He promises to lead Zeke to his parents' old house, but Zeke is smart enough not to trust him at his word. The two cross paths with Miss Angeline, a Native American woman who warns him that Rudy isn't all he seems. Briar, meanwhile, meets up with a crew of people who revere her father and keep a bar named after him in the city's underground warren of tunnels. They promise to help her find her son, though they warn her it won't be easy. Both Briar and Zeke hear about the man called Dr. Minnericht, a scientist-cum-crime-boss who runs the city inside the wall, and who, rumor has it, might be Leviticus Blue himself.

From then on there's only one natural conclusion: that Briar, Zeke and Minnericht must end up in the same place. The rest of the action in the book drives toward that end. Minnericht opens up a tunnel that sends a horde of rotters into Maynard's Bar, forcing the group helping Briar into the tunnels, and from then onward to Minnericht's lair inside a half-built train station. Zeke is taken into custody by Minnericht's right-hand-man, not knowing that his mother is being held prisoner in the same building into which he's being welcomed as a prodigal son. The entire back half of the book is one tense moment after another, unrelenting, and the conclusion is almost as vividly visual as some of Suzanne Collins's writing at its best. I could see this played out as clearly as if it were on a movie screen.

I should mention also, that the chapters narrated by Zeke were just as engaging as the ones narrated by Briar. Zeke is a passionate kid, very smart and resourceful, and fearless. He reminds me of the character of Jake Chambers in the Dark Tower series-- emotionally older than his years, brave and driven and kind. I love his interactions with Miss Angeline, and I flat-out adored the scene with him and Minnericht. He's a kid, but he's growing up, in many ways has already grown up. He's a great character to read a point of view from, and I liked the back-and-forth in tone from his chapters to Briar's. The ways they each see the world behind the wall are so different-- for Briar it's sad, because it's a place she used to know well, now ruined and lost. But for Zeke it's more fascinating than anything else, totally new and exciting even while it's terrifying half the time.

I liked the ending, for what it's worth. I thought it tied up a little too neatly, and a little too quickly. But I liked it. The part to me that was the best, the most emotionally satisfying, wasn't the end battle in the train station, but the part where Briar and Zeke finally go back to the old house together. Zeke has a lot of his questions answered, Briar gets to work out some of her emotional issues surrounding her husband and his role in the tragedy, and also is able to admit that the past few days have helped her come to terms with some of her problems with her father and his memory as well. I loved the images of the old house falling to pieces, I loved the secret passage to the underground lair (because come on, what mad scientist worth his salt doesn't have one?) and the way the events of the book made Briar and Zeke get closer and understand each other a little more.

Boneshaker was a great read. I'm a sucker for books that pack an emotional punch along with great worldbuilding and imagination, and this one totally delivered on all fronts. One of the reviews on the back cover says, "If Jules Verne and George Romero got together to rewrite American History, it might go something like this." I agree. It's a great adventure story, and I'm looking forward to its sequel like crazy.

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