Sunday, September 26, 2010

What if the Civil War lasted 20 years...and had a few zombies too?

The best thing about steampunk is that it’s not really a genre unto itself.  Good steampunk is just a backdrop to the rest of the story, and doesn’t get in the way.  It shouldn’t be so jarring that it snaps the reader out of the story.

Boneshaker is a steampunk setting with a zombie story.  It’s set in the time of the Civil War, but the war became so protracted that it's been going for 20+ years. The steampunk material fits, since technology could have easily diverged at that point, and wartime tends to bring out scientific advances.  And since the city in which the story takes place is so run down and post-apocalyptic, mad scientists and strange technology fits, too.

In this timeline, America is starting to debate whether it should by Alaska from the Russians.  But during the debate, Russia wants to know if the Yukon has gold before it settles on a price.  Enter Doctor Leviticus Blue and his Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine.  Made to drill underground to look for veins of gold, something went wrong one night.  It drilled its way out of Blue’s basement laboratory, ran under half the town, and then returned to the lab.

Generally, cities don’t like having the ground drilled out from underneath them, so this caused a good bit of destruction.  Beyond the physical destruction, however, the Boneshaker released as gas known as Blight.  It is this Blight gas, when inhaled, which creates “rotters”, the half-dead creatures that we call zombies.

So what do the good people do to combat this?  They build a wall around the city, high enough to trap the gas, and keep in the rotters.  

Unfortunately, they also trapped healthy humans who couldn’t, for one reason or another, get out of the city.  The largest group of these was the people incarcerated in the city jail.  The police wanted to get out of the city themselves, and they left the jail closed, leaving the people there to die.  Local citizen Magnus Wilkes couldn’t leave these people to die, so he ran back in to the city himself to let them out.  While there, he was overcome with the Blight gas, and while two of the prisoners he released got him back out, he died.

Almost two decades later, Leviticus Blue’s wife, and Magnus’ daughter, now going by her maiden name of Briar Wilkes, and her son Zeke, live in the city outside the wall.  Briar works in the water works, which does its best removing the residue of the Blight from the area’s water supply, for a pittance.  Zeke is able to continue to go to school, but since he’s treated so badly by the people of the city (being the son of the person who brought about the zombie apocalypse does that), he’s been running with a bad crowd.  Most law-abiding citizens still see Magus’ final act as a crime, but the seedier side of town thinks of him as a hero.

After a particularly hard day for both of them, Zeke gets it into his head that he wants to go back in to the Blight to clear his father’s name.  There have been rumors that the Russians coerced Leviticus into testing the Boneshaker early, and it went out of control.  So, armed with an antiquated gas mask and an ancient revolver, Zeke makes his way into the walled city.

When his mother finds out what he’s done, she prepares to go in after him.  When an earthquake rocks the area, and the drainage pipes that Zeke uses to get in collapse and become impassable, Briar uses his father’s name to befriend an airship captain to get dropped into the city.  And from there, the gas-masked-wearing, dirigible-flying, steam-cleaned-air breathing adventure begins.

This book has a little bit of everything.  It has silent Chinese men working the unbearable steam jobs, a drug refined from the Blight gas called ‘lemon drop’ that they’re hoping will get some of the opium money flowing into the country, and of course the face-eating zombies chasing them whenever they hear living flesh around.

Cherie Priest has written a few books before this, but this book is getting her a lot of publicity.  For good reason, too.  This book sets up a great world for either sequels or parallel novels, and I can’t wait to see what else will be coming.

Highs:  Watching the mother Briar meeting the airship captains

Lows:  Uneven action, maybe too many stories in one.

Verdict:  A popcorn-munching, fun, fast romp

Further Reading:  Feed, Soulless, World War Z

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