Review: Cherie Priest – Boneshaker

Thanks to Becky from Pan Macmillan for my first ever paper review copy. Yay! And such a beautiful book, too. The hype had kept me from picking it up even though the cover art and design are amazing. And I love steampunk – when done well. So all you Clockwork Century fans out there, brace yourselves and get the tomatoes ready. You’re not going to like me very much for this one…

by Cherie Priest

Published by: Tor, 2012 (2009)
ISBN: 9781447225089
Pages: 416
Copy: review paperback from the publisher
Series: The Clockwork Century #1

My rating: 4,5/10

First sentence: Unpaved, uneven trails pretended to be roads; they tied the nations coasts together like laces holding a boot, binding it with crosed strings and crossed fingers.

Cherie Priest’s much-anticipated steampunk debut has finally arrived in the form of a paperback original. Its plot features the sort of calibrated suspense that readers of her Four and Twenty Blackbirds would expect. Boneshaker derives its title from the Bone-Shaking Drill Engine, a device designed to give Russian prospectors a leg up in the race for Klondike gold. Unfortunately, there was one hitch: On its trial run, the Boneshaker went haywire and, long story short, turned much of Seattle into a city of the dead. Now, 16 years later, a teenage boy decides to find out what is behind that mysterious wall. Can his mother save him in time? Zombie lit of the first order.

Oh dear… So this novel is marketed and sold as a steampunk civil war story with zombies. What’s not to like, right? But there are so many things wrong with it that it’s hard to begin. First of all, the civil war aspect doesn’t come through at all during the entire narration. We are told once or twice that there is a war going on and that, once it’s over, Briar would like to move east. That’s it. We’re not shown the poverty or the suffering or any repercussions of the actual war. I expected something more epic, but this is a very small-scale story. Seeing as the setting is fairly closed and the novel takes place in and around the city of Seattle, I can live with that. I am also under the impression that it is supposed to be an adult novel – not that there’s any great amounts of sex or violence in here – but adult nonetheless. However, the writing reads very much like a YA book. The language is simple, the story straight-forward, there are very few characters, and I didn’t like the style at all, to be honest.  What gave me this YA impression was the difference between the playful, funny first chapter, and everything that followed. I adored that intro chapter that sets up the entire book with Leviticus Blue’s invention of the Boneshaker. After that, the style became simpler, the dialogue was very convoluted. I got the feeling that these things may have sounded much better when said out loud than they did on the page. The many mid-sentence stops, the constant use of “look…” before someone starts explaining something. It got on my nerves fairly quickly.

Another negative for me: the time period does not come to life at all. Women wear men’s clothes, there doesn’t seem to be any prejudice towards what is a woman’s job and what’s a man’s job – it all felt way too modern. What bothered me more, though, was that the city of Seattle didn’t get any character either. In interviews Cherie Priest said that she was fascinated with this underworld-like system of tunnels existing under the city. While we do spend a considerable (and very boring) time in these tunnels, the descriptions of them didn’t bring them to life for me. Pretty much the same thing goes for the steampunk element. It’s peripheral at best and, again, not well described. People have to wear masks in order not to turn into Rotters, and there are airships. How these operate, we aren’t told. Sure, there are a lot of levers everywhere but, again, we don’t really get to see the inner workings of any machinery.

My biggest pet peeve, as I’ve mentioned in the first paragraph, was the writing style. There are so many things wrong with it that I should really just make a list. But I’ll be a good reviewer and explain to you why it bothered me so much. First of all, the dialogue was atrocious. Nobody talks like that, in no period of time. It felt unnatural and took me out of the flow of the story. Whenever somebody points into a direction or points at something our characters are supposed to look at – we don’t get a description of that particular thing. Instead, we get strange, mid-sentence-stop dialogue.

“Where’s the fort?” the captain demanded. For the first time he sounded flustered, maybe even on the edge of afraid. “Six o’clock.” “From which…? From where…?” “Over there.” “I see it,” he said suddenly, and yanked at the lever above his head.

There were also some pieces of dialogue that made me wonder if my grasp of the English language is simply not firm enough to understand them or if there are logical mistakes (I am still learning English after all, so if it’s me, please tell me).

Parks leaned over the slumping form of Mr. Guise and pulled a lever, then stretched his foot over the slouching body to push a pedal. It was the wrong pedal, or maybe the right one.

Well, which one is it? Shouldn’t the effect of pushing the pedal make it very clear whether it was the right or the wrong one? Aren’t you expecting something to happen when you push the right pedal – and if that effect does not come to pass, can’t you logically conclude that it was the wrong one? Seriously, this bit just had me lost.

You know how important characters are for me. If all of these things were still as bad as they are but if I cared about the characters, I could have forgiven them. BUT. We only get two protagonists who, while decently introduced, remain extremely bland and pale. As for other characters, they are basically just cardboard cut-outs with names attached to them.

Varney and Willard stayed  close on either side of Lucy, and Swakhammer led the way with Briar beside him. The rest of them – Frank, Ed, Allen, David, Squiddy, Joe, Mackie, and Tim – brought up the rear. They marched together in silence, except for Frank and Ed, who were grousing about Hank.

Cherie Priest throws names at us, without any attributes. Not even a hair color (which, granted, doesn’t make a character, but at least gives you something to hold on to). No no, except for a random few characters who we’re told have only one arm or a strange voice or are particularly tall, we don’t get anything at all. So why should I care if one of them gets killed? All I know is their name and, by deduction, their gender.

So let’s move on to the plot. After that brilliant prologue and the first few chapters, the situation is set up. We – the readers – know about it and we want to follow our two protagonists along and see how the plan works out for them. On her way, Briar meets some people, tells them her plan in its entirety. Then she meets new people, so hey, let’s rehash the plan again. And of course how she got to be here. The same things got repeated over and over, by different characters in different situations and it took out soooo much pace. Cherie Priest said in this interview (click to go to Youtube – the part I mean is at about 4:50) that she always knows the beginning and the end of her books and kind of muddles around the middle. Well, I can tell. Because the beginning was not only good, that very first chapter was even wonderful. It was quirky and funny and I loved the narrative voice. That changes when we meet Briar and Zeke – but even their first chapters were still fine and interesting. The middle part, though, was an entirely different story. Boy oh boy, I would have edited the shit out of those parts. All the time spent  repeating things the reader already knows could have been used for character development or for plot twists or for new ideas. Or some world building.

The world building has one fundamental flaw. Apart from a lack of atmosphere (maybe that’s just my taste), the question that remained open for me and makes the entire story completely unbelievable was: How the fuck do these people get food? They live inside the walled city of Seattle, they mostly live underground. Air gets filtered, they even built machines to distill water so they have something to drink. But what do they eat??? There are no animals (maybe zombie-animals), no plants grow there, the Blight destroys everything. Sure, some of them trade sap (a drug made from the Blight) and I’m assuming they get some food in return. But how does the majority of the population live? All those Chinese people? From what we learn of airships going to the city, they don’t come often and there’s not many of them. So tell me, HOW THE FUCK DO THESE PEOPLE EAT? Zeke only eats once that we know of and Briar doesn’t eat at all while in Seattle. They also don’t seem to suffer a lot of hunger. Wow… last time I didn’t eat for half a day, I was cranky and ravenous.

After that huge rant, let me say that I will give Cherie Priest another shot. Why? Because of that first chapter. It leads me me to believe that she can write, that she has good ideas. This may be a small hope to hang on to, but it’s the only one I have.

THE GOOD: A wonderful prologue and some interesting ideas.
THE BAD: Could have benefited greatly from some more editing and a course of Writing 101.
THE VERDICT: A good idea. It felt like the author was too lazy to do any of the hard bits – world building, good dialoge, suspense, and good prose.

MY RATING: 4,5/10  Really not that good.

The Clockwork Century:

  1. BoneshakerCherie Priest - Clockwork Century New Covers
  2. Clementine
  3. Dreadnought
  4. Ganymede
  5. The Inexplicables

Second opinions: