Confederate airships! Mad scientists! Zombies! Goggles! Cherie Priest's Boneshaker is a veritable grab bag of subgenre tropes. But, fortunately, it's far less about clockwork and brass than it is about human adaptability and the shifting nature of the American Dream.
Boneshaker takes place in an alternate Washington territory, where the Klondike gold rush ramped up decades earlier, making the Seattle of 1860 a bustling metropolis of 40,000 residents. To more efficiently extract gold from the ice, a Russian mining company contracts Seattle inventor Leviticus Blue to create the ultimate mining machine, Dr. Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine. But during the device's first test run, it malfunctions, leveling the city's banking district and tearing open an enormous crack in the earth. The destruction was bad enough, but what pours out of that crack in the ground is far worse: Blight gas, a deadly, invisible substance that kills the lucky and transforms the less fortunate into "rotters," undead creatures who hunger for living flesh. Blue and his Boneshaker vanish, Seattle is abandoned, and a high wall is built around the city to hold in the rotters and the Blight.
Fifteen years later, Briar Wilkes lives on the Outskirts of Seattle with her teenaged son Zeke, working at a factory that cleans Blight from the drinking water. Briar labors under a strange pair of legacies: she's not only the widow of Leviticus Blue, she's also the daughter of Maynard Wilkes, a lawman who became something of a folk hero after the first days of the Blight. Briar would rather forget the men of her past (if anyone on the Outskirts would let her) and focus on creating some semblance of a life for her son. But Zeke is curious about the father he never knew, and wonders if there is more to Leviticus than his reputation would suggest. So, one day while Briar is at work, Zeke ventures into the walled city to visit the home his parents shared before the Blight. When Briar learns, to her horror, where Zeke has gone, she does the unthinkable and follows him behind the wall.
Granted, there are moments when Boneshaker reads like an exercise in finding legitimate reasons to include elements of steampunk (special goggles let you see the Blight, airships fly over the Seattle wall, and there are gas masks aplenty). On top of that, there's a healthy dose of alternate history. Not only did Priest bump up the timetable for the Klondike gold, Stonewall Jackson fails to die as a result of his injuries at Chancellorsville, a turn of events that has left the Civil War raging back East some fifteen years. And it seems Priest never met a pulp character she didn't like; the supporting cast includes a one-armed bartender, an aged Native American princess, a deck hand whose tongue was cut out, and air pirates.
Ultimately, though, Boneshaker shares more kinship with the post-apocalyptic genre, even though the Blight didn't destroy the world — or even, for that matter, Seattle. As it turns out, people are still living in the wasted city, going about their daily lives thanks to a network of tunnels, a series of pumps that bring in fresh air, and a few novel technologies for dealing with the gas and the rotters. The residents of Blighted Seattle view themselves as sort of frontiersmen (and women) of the apocalypse. With the Blight still leeching into the air, it could someday overtake all of Washington, and perhaps even the world. They live a hard and strange life, but one not devoid of pleasures. There is a sort of freedom in living where the law and most polite society won't travel, and necessity has bred technological wonders that don't exist in the outside world. Progress is slow, but it happens, and it lets them carve out a gradually improving home for themselves. It's a version of the American Dream that exists in sharp contrast to the big payoff the gold rushers and Leviticus Blue chased after.
But even hard labor and ingenuity weren't quite enough to buy a habitable Seattle. The residents were forced to turn to the unscrupulous Dr. Minnericht — a sort of wannabe Bond villain with a dash of Darth Vader thrown in for good measure. In the early days of the Blight, Minnericht helped the residents obtain supplies and fashion new technologies, and now has set himself up as the king of Seattle. No one knows Minnericht's true identity and few have seen his face. But his way with gadgets and his questionable morals remind many of the residents of Leviticus Blue, and they've begun to chafe under his rule. And the sudden appearance of Blue's widow and son threaten to bring years of resentment to a head.
Boneshaker's greatest strength is that Priest doesn't overly fetishize the subgenres she plays with, never overwhelming the fairly straightforward stories of mother and son, and giving her clockwork machinations and zombie encounters more impact when they do appear. Though zombies and Blight certainly color the lives of Seattle residents, they aren't obsessed with either; they simply accept that their routines occur in a deadly world. And Zeke and Briar may live in a world filled to the brim with elements of science fiction and pulp, but those are just the things and people they must navigate to reunite and survive. The only real downside is that, throughout the book, we visit too briefly with so many intriguing characters and concepts in favor of the novel's core adventure. Fortunately, Priest is already setting a second novel in her strange and blemished world, so we will hopefully see a fuller, richer picture of what goes on inside.