Cherie Priest’s ‘Boneshaker’

A Must Read 300It’s rare to find an alternate history novel that is well-written, unfortunately. Many entries in the genre contain glaring plot holes, paper-thin characters, and shoddy pacing. Luckily, I managed to find an alternate history/sci-fi novel that stands out from the crowd in Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. In the mid-1800s, the gold rush was sweeping America, culminating in the discovery of the Klondike gold vein in the northwest of Canada. This vein inevitably drew thousands of miners to the region, all seeking to break through the thick ice and strike riches beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Russia posted a 100,000 rubles reward for the invention of a machine that could reach this gold. Such a machine was created by a man named Leviticus Blue: a massive machine fifty feet in length with a number of towering drills that allowed the machine to tunnel underground. One day the machine turned on under Dr. Blue’s Seattle home and ravaged the town. In the process, a mysterious gas was released killing thousands in the coming months and prompting the erection of massive walls around a district of Seattle. A decade and a half later, Briar Wilkes, Blue’s widow, finds herself crossing into the most dangerous sections of abandoned Seattle in order to find her missing son, while he in turn tries to change his legacy. In their quest, the two find themselves pitted against invisible dangers, human cruelty, and the ravenous hordes of those affected by the Blight gas.

Cherie Priest is no stranger to writing supernatural elements into her novels. Her Eden Moore series is supernatural mystery, though the presentation is heavy-handed for the most part. Boneshaker is Priest’s first real shining novel. The world Priest has built is brilliantly grounded, even while introducing supernatural elements into the story. The characters of Boneshaker have adapted, meaning that the book doesn’t try to bash the fantastical happenings into the reader’s head: the characters simply accept these things, like the undead, as a fact of life. This allows the dialogue to flow more naturally, since Priest isn’t trying to give unnecessary exposition right off the bat. As I mentioned earlier, pacing is one of the great challenges of historical fiction/alternate history novels. Amazingly, Boneshaker never slows down. If there isn’t physical action on the page, there’s engaging story. Just enough is revealed to the reader at a time to keep you turning, while never really making the experience frustrating. In fact, I would say that Boneshaker is one of the most well-paced book’s I’ve read in the last three or four years. I never caught myself urging the story ahead.

None of this is to say that this book is a technical masterpiece. There are times where the characters fall into archetypal tropes, leading to moments that simply would never happen if they talked things out like ordinary people. On top of that, the dialogue is so normalized that some people may find the abruptness of some of the characters to be one-dimensional. These things never soured my experience with the book, but they are worth noting if these particular shortcomings are significant to you. Ultimately, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is a beautiful example of what alternate historical fiction can do when written well. The characters are dynamic, if strangely flat in a few scenes, and the steampunk-esque world Briar Wilkes navigates is richly detailed and intriguing in its history. If you like historical fiction or steampunk science-fiction, then check out Boneshaker. If nothing else, the book is a fun little ride that put Cherie Priest firmly on my radar.

Source: Jake Depew, Assistant Editor