I’m not the biggest fan of zombies. They don’t automatically make everything better, and I find stories focusing on them to be frustrating in many ways, from the impossible logistics of the undead spreading so quickly to the infuriatingly stupid behavior of the protagonists (Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead, it is generally a bad idea to go into Atlanta when you see a long line of abandoned cars on the way out. There’s usually a reason those people were trying to get away).
So I was very pleasantly surprised when Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker averted most of the things I find annoying about zombies.
For one thing, the story is set in an alternate version of the Civil War, in the Seattle area just after the city has grown in a mining boom. Since I love any kind of historical fiction, especially anything that incorporates elements of the fantastic, I was already inclined to be interested, even if that element was zombies. Add the fact that the protagonist is a woman struggling to reconnect with her son, and I go from interested to intrigued. With good worldbuilding and a setting steeped in atmosphere, I went from intrigued to a fan.
Seattle is sealed off. A mining machine meant to facilitate and increase productivity ran amok, tearing through the underside of the city, causing buildings to collapse and roads to disintegrate. But the greatest devastation came from the gas that was released from underground by the Boneshaker’s rampage. Those who inhaled it died quickly- and of those who died, not all remained dead. They took over the city; those who survived fled.
Briar Wilkes is one of those survivors. And as the widow of the man who invented the Boneshaker and brought about the destruction, she’s tried her best to keep her head down, work hard, and make sure that her son Ezekiel does not have to deal with the ghosts her husband passed on. What she didn’t count on was her son’s determination to prove his father innocent of the rumors that he destroyed the city on purpose- a determination that leads him to enter the walled-off city to find evidence to prove it.
I think what I liked most about this book was the atmosphere. The smoky, nasty, horrible feeling of walking around in a gas-filled city seemed to leap off the page and pollute the room, and I loved it. I like when the gritty details are so tangible I can see them, and this book had those details in spades. Oddly enough, it wasn’t very gory, but the dialects of the characters, the mechanics of how the underground community of Seattle worked, the various effects and uses of the gas that caused the disaster, and the odd and detailed technology all made this world seem real. Even if the zombies are there, they’re just a hazard of living that the people have adapted to, rather than a world-ending apocalypse. I found that really neat, as it gives the reader more of an opportunity to find out more about how the people of this world lived.
But as we all know, a good world doesn’t necessarily mean that the book is good- characters are a major part of that. Luckily the characters are all really enjoyable. I loved Briar for her struggles and her determination to fix things between herself and her son, who really nicely averted the cliché of a teenager going on a quest that will fix everything (when he acts stupid, he’s called out on it). I loved the side characters a lot, and the main villain is very spooky with how much he has the underworld of Seattle in thrall. My only complaint was that I really wanted to spend more time with the characters, and I sometimes found the dynamics and power relations between the gas smugglers (the gas that caused the zombies can be modified to form a drug that’s immensely popular, if illegal) and the community living in the underbelly of the city confusing. That said, there was a lot going on in this book, so it’s not really surprising that some of it would be confusing, and my confusion on that point didn’t affect my reading or understanding what the main goals of the protagonists were.
I think overall this was easily one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. It’s not great literature by any stretch of the imagination, but the characters are so great and the world is concrete that I didn’t care. I just had a blast reading about Briar and Zeke and Princess Angeline and Swakhammer and everyone else who populated this crazy world. I was pleasantly surprised too by how well the many different elements came together to form a cohesive whole. Within the setting of this world, the airships, the zombies, and the smugglers all actually had a place and a role and weren’t just thrown in for effect. I would love to see this and the later books set in this universe made into a mini-series or movie, just because it would be so different and so much more fun than most of the zombie fare out there (Walking Dead, I’m looking at you). That’ll probably never happen in my lifetime, but at least I can take comfort in the fact that there are other books in this universe for me to enjoy when I need a break from Anna Karenina or some other such tome.
Plus- bad pun ahead- it’s nice to have some brain candy every once in a while.