My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If there was a category called “summer popcorn book,” Boneshaker would be in it. It’s a rip-roaring Steampunk adventure that has it all: a plucky female protagonist, an odd assortment of supporting characters, nifty retro gadgets, and to top it all off: zombies. What it doesn’t have are introspective characters or sparkling dialog; many of the characters are clichéd ciphers bordering on stereotypes.
From the prolog we learn that gold is discovered in the Klondike in 1850 and that in 1860 the Russians offer a large prize to anyone who can figure out a way to mine the gold from the glacial ice. A Seattle inventor named Leviticus Blue builds a contraption called the Boneshaker that can drill through the earth. On January 2, 1863, the Boneshaker digs through downtown Seattle, ultimately ravaging four banks which hold millions of dollars. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people die in the catastrophe, but the real horror is yet to begin. A thick, slow-moving gas is released from the tunnels; a gas that kills by contamination. The gas is heavier than air, so barriers can stop its seepage. A year after the disaster a 200-ft high, 20-ft wide wall of brick and mortar is erected to stop the Blight from spreading. The survivors that relocated to the Outskirts begin their lives anew.
Fast-forward to 1879. The American Civil War is still raging in the East with the help of combat dirigibles and mechanized cavalry. The widow of Leviticus Blue, Briar Wilkes, is doing her best to raise her 15-year-old son Zeke in the Outskirts while keeping a low profile from those who hold a grudge against her husband. Zeke longs to clear his father’s name, imagining that his mad actions must have a rational explanation other than him being a thief and murderer. Outfitted with little more than a gas mask and a gun, Zeke manages to sneak into the walled-off ruins, determined to discover the truth. Desperate with worry, Briar hitches a ride over the wall in a dirigible to attempt to rescue her son. What they find is more terrifying than they could imagine.
Briar is obsessed with finding Zeke, so although normally level-headed, her emotions often cause her to ignore common sense, which gets her into trouble. Zeke is stubborn and thinks he knows better than everyone else, and at every decision point he makes the wrong choice—in other words, he is a typical teenager. The villain is a mad genius named Dr. Minnericht who controls an illegal trade in the addictive drug called lemon sap, which is derived from the Blight. Briar and Zeke meet an unusual assortment of characters, most notably amputee Lucy who uses a mechanical prosthetic arm. And then there are the rotters—the dead brought to life by the Blight—whose only goal is to eat human flesh.
After a slow beginning, the action barrels along without a dull moment. However, as awesome as the set-up is, there aren’t too many surprises, and the dialog tends to be stilted (e.g., “Let me explain, before you demand that I explain.”). There are a number of unanswered questions, such as the composition of the Blight and how it creates the rotters. Why in the world would a normal person want to stay in such a hellhole to begin with? Why could they build a ginormous wall, complicated air pumps and filtration systems, and sonic cannons, but couldn’t fill up a hole in the ground? My biggest complaint is that the entire plot hinges on Briar withholding information from Zeke that there really was no reason to withhold.
Boneshaker is a fun, visually descriptive presentation that Steampunk fans will love. Everyone else: put your brain on hold and enjoy the ride.