Boneshaker, written by Cherie Priest, is steampunk fiction set in an alternate 1870s universe in which the Civil War has dragged on for well over a decade and Seattle is being poisoned. Steampunk has never been my favorite genre, primarily because all that I had read was so dark and depressing (I’m looking at you China Mieville), but this book has me reevaluating my position.
The protagonist, Briar Wilkes Blue, is the widow of a villain and the daughter of a hero. Her husband was invented the machine which split open the earth under Seattle, letting poison seep out to make zombies, and her father saved jailed prisoners from the poison. Fifteen years later, Briar is struggling to survive with her son Zeke outside the walls that surround poisoned Seattle. Zeke takes off into the walled in section of the city to see what he can find out about his history so Briar must follow to save him.
To me, there were echoes of mythology (Orpheus/Eurydice or Demeter/Persephone) in this tale of a mother following her son down into the tunnels of hell to bring him back out. Much of the tale takes place in underground tunnels, while zombies (or ‘Rotters’) roam the streets above. Chinamen pump clean air into sealed off areas and folks live a precarious existence, under fear of Rotter attacks.
The inhabitants of the walled Seattle have a love/hate relationship with the mysterious Dr. Minnericht. The women in this story were really kick ass, from Briar who goes in search of her son with a mask and big gun, to Lucy, the barkeep with no arms, to Angeline, the aging Indian Princess and angel of death.
The society seems to function through a sort of sailor mentality: the ocean is really dangerous, I could be in a sinking ship tomorrow, so I better save someone in a sinking ship today. Clean air and clean filters for masks are shared because to do otherwise is death. The reason I didn’t find the book dark despite all the tunnels, poisonous air and zombies was because of the humanity of the inhabitants.
My only quibbles with the story were the sort that come up whenever you deal with a fantasy: well why didn’t they just plug up the hole the gas was seaping from or kill all the Rotters, cause there can’t be too many of them left. However, if I’m going to go there, I may as well also ask how Harry Potter’s broomstick can fly and I’m not going to.