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As Cherie Priest's Boneshaker opens, it's sixteen years since eccentric inventor Leviticus Blue built his eponymous device—a tunnelling machine equipped with four "enormous drilling grinders . . . like the claws of a terrible crab" (p.403), designed to drill through the ice-fields covering the now played-out Alaskan gold reserves of the Russian Empire. Sixteen years since the machine ran amok in downtown Seattle, sinking the banks and offices into the caverns it tunnelled beneath them, but in the process releasing The Blight, a toxic gas that turns its victims into cannibal zombies.

Briar Wilkes lives just outside Seattle with her fifteen-year-old son Ezekiel, working as a manual labourer at the local water treatment plant, filtering out the effects of the Blight. To the east of Seattle, in one of the quirks of this timeline, the Civil War still rages, although Washington State remains largely unaffected by it except for the airships flying overhead on a regular basis bringing news and limited trade. Seattle is enclosed by a vast wall which confines its hordes of shambling "rotters," as the zombies are called, the remaining population displaced to the small communities ringing the city.

Despite her reverting to her maiden name, her colleagues all know that Briar is the widow of the now-reviled Blue, and her days are spent enduring petty humiliations such as finding her protective goggles painted blue, while her evenings are spent in uneasy tension with Ezekiel. Her relationship with a rebellious adolescent son on the edge of manhood is exacerbated by the legacy of her late husband's actions, and by her unwillingness to explain to Ezekiel what happened to her husband, and also to her father, who died escorting prisoners away from the Blight.

At the end of one particularly bitter exchange, Ezekiel runs away to sneak under the wall through an old sewage outfall and visit his parent's old house. Returning home that evening, Briar sets off in pursuit as soon as she's been able to bully out where he's gone from one of his cronies, but by the time an earthquake seals the outflow fully—although fortunately Briar is able to escape—almost twenty-four hours have elapsed.

Two brief asides. First, the novel's timeline is somewhat hard to pin down. It's hard to be sure whether Priest is deliberately blurring the details, but I spent a lot of time trying to work out what was happening when. This elasticity of time is one of the novel's most irritating of features—as if Priest herself is captive to the same sense of underground achronicity as her characters.

Second, like Chris Wooding's The Fade (2007) and several other recent novels, Boneshaker derives much of its narrative drive from maternalism. Briar's nonviolent coercion of the Rector into revealing where Ezekiel is perfectly highlights her most appealing characteristic—she will not give up on her son. It marks another almost infinitesimal nudge away from the genre's male-dominated past.

The tunnel's collapse forces Briar to venture out to the outpost where the tramp airships moor, at which point she learns that her late father's name gives her enough cachet to beg a lift from one reluctant pilot. In one of the novel's finest set pieces, he drops her down a vast pipe which carries clean air down through the murk of the ground-hugging Blight: "The world was spinning beneath her, bleak, blind, and bottomless. And somewhere, hidden within it, her fifteen-year-old son was lost and trapped, and there was no one to go down there and get him except for his mother [. . .] focussing on this goal [. . .] did little to calm the throbbing horror of her heart" (p.109).

Once inside the city, both mother and son's paths converge on the mysterious Doctor Minnericht, with a certain amount of authorially contrived dog-legging. The Doctor is the masked mastermind manipulating the various factions within the walls, playing the survivors of the Chinese labourers off against the surviving locals and vice versa, using the rotters and carefully garnered technology from the vaults of Doctor Blue, while hinting at and spreading rumours that he is the inventor. This question underpins the whole novel; it could have been a liability, but Priest handles the eventual denouement well.

On first read, Boneshaker is good. On a second, I found some nagging doubts just wouldn't go away. Despite my wanting it to—and it seems particularly mean-spirited to dismantle such a lolloping, likeable puppy-dog of a novel—Boneshaker doesn't quite hang together.

In some ways the novel's limitations perfectly encapsulate steampunk as a young sub-genre whose taxonomy really only dates back to 1987, and K. W. Jeter's definition of it as "Victorian fantasies" written "in the gonzo-historical manner." Such a definition was sufficiently loose that almost anything from that period could be included, although the subsequent suggestion by some commentators such as Jason Heller that steampunk's origins are "nebulous" smacks of historical revisionism, and the annexation of works such as The Wild Wild West (1965-69, film 1999), the Gormenghast trilogy (1946-59), and Keith Robert's Pavane (1968) retrospective movement-bolstering. Aside from The Wild Wild West, which was conceived as "James Bond on horseback," (so that its gadgetry probably owes more to Fleming's Q than Jeter), neither of the others are Victoriana.

But while strictly inaccurate the comment does capture the spirit of steampunk, which can sometimes seem little more than a throw-any-old-ingredient-into-the-pot aggregation of characters and devices, however ludicrous they become upon reflection.

Those authors first consciously writing steampunk had a blank canvas, but as the genre's aged, it's become progressively harder to keep that sense of freshness. Boneshaker has managed it, but in keeping it has raised other questions.

One of them is that Priest's world building is on reflection no more than skin deep. The word "zeppelin" leapt out even on first reading; it may be a typo, and it's tempting to take her foreword, which states that "in this age of invention the science of arms has made great progress. In fact, the most remarkable inventions have been made since the prolonged wars in Europe in the early part of the century, and the short Italian campaign of France in 1859" (p.11), as covering a deliberate implication that airship development is considerably ahead of our timeline. But it's hard to swallow the idea that Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin could have advanced as far by his fortieth birthday here as by his sixtieth or even seventieth in our world without a little more exposition than currently offered.

More significantly, where does the Blight come from? What is it? Why hasn't it spread further if it is so plentiful? If it is as plentiful as it seems there, why hasn't it seeped out before? Not only are all of these questions pushed aside in pursuit of protagonists running around ahead of the deus ex machine zombies, but the whole phenomenon is portrayed as something not particularly noteworthy. It's hard to shake off the suspicion that even with the interference of the Civil War, scientists would flock to Seattle to study the phenomenon (think of the endless curiosity of the nineteenth century scientist as depicted by Verne, Wells, Conan Doyle, et al.), but all such impressions are absent from the pages of the novel; and this lack of intellectual curiosity fatally underminines its credibility.

That headline grabbing first paragraph at the top of the review sums up perfectly all Boneshaker's strengths and weaknesses; bold, simple concepts, engaging characters, and whizz-bang pace. But against this can be set a lack of any great originality, no real science whatsoever, and a cavalier attitude to the internal logic of her setting. "I realize that the story is a bit of a twisted stretch," she writes in an afterword, "but honestly—isn't that what steampunk is for?" (p. 416)

Er, no. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what Priest calls her novel—fantasy, SF, or steampunk—except that even in all but the weakest fantasy there's supposed to be some internal logic, and here, the reader is distracted with smoke-and-mirrors of plot and a shrug of the authorial shoulders to cover the book's weaknesses.

Boneshaker is being talked up by its fans with adjectives like "stellar" and "terrific," but while it's good, it's not that good. What's much sadder is the impression that it could have been, with a little more something—another editorial run-through, a tougher crit group, some more effort, thought, rigour, whatever.

But it seems that—according to Priest— is not what steampunk is for.

Colin Harvey’s latest book is Winter Song.

Colin Harvey’s latest book is Winter Song.
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