Author: Cherie Priest
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 416 pages
Genre: steampunk, historical fiction, AU
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 2 stars (and that on credit)
I wanted to like this book. I really did. I’m a big fan of the steampunk aesthetic, and I keep hoping to see it handled well in fiction. But… I found Boneshaker quite underwhelming and something of a disappointment. The plot doesn’t hold together all that well, and I’m not a fan of the author’s storytelling style. She’s trying to be clever by holding back information, but really it just muddies everything. It doesn’t help that the two main characters spend the entire book not knowing what the heck is going on, and since it’s third-limited from their perspectives, the reader has no idea what’s going on, either. This limitation is particularly troublesome as Priest never fully defines the rules of her universe. She makes blanket statements about the way things are in this AU version of Seattle, but never backs them up with coherent explanations.
I also had trouble visualising. Her descriptions are sort of… bland? I’m not sure if that’s the right word. It doesn’t feel like it should be the right word, for a genre that is so dependent on visual aesthetic — and maybe that’s why it seems so lacking. Priest glances at the aesthetic without ever really doing it justice, without using it effectively. It sort of felt like she left out what could be important details about the setting, so that the major concepts didn’t connect to each other, and I was left trying to fit together pieces that were really blurry around the edges. A lot of times, it seemed like she was depending on the reader knowing Seattle’s topography to do the work for her — and as I’ve never been to Seattle, I couldn’t follow where she wanted to lead. Her descriptions just didn’t grab me, they never went far enough to paint a complete picture, and as such, I had trouble visualising what was going on.
The biggest problem, though, was that I also didn’t come to care about any of the characters, and I always have trouble engaging with a book when that’s the case. I can forgive a book any number of plot meanderings, logic holes, confusing moments, and sparse descriptions if I can get excited about the characters. But Briar and Zeke are as grey and dull as their surroundings. Priest gives us some background on their histories — but, as I said above, never quite enough to feel like you have a grip on what’s going on — but we never learn how they feel about anything. There’s very little introspection from either of them, and, once again, when your viewpoint is third limited, that’s sort of a necessity. Several of the supporting characters had the potential to be far more compelling than the leads, but Priest doesn’t give any of them enough “screen time” to really sell their merits. The result is a plodding, aimless story without any driving personality behind it. She’s also terribly prone to telling rather than showing, and that goes as much for the emotional development of the characters as it does for the setting.
Overall, extremely underwhelming, and I must confess that I don’t at all understand the high praise and considerable hype this book has earned in some circles. I’m bewildered that the book has warranted sequels, and even more astonished that it was nominated for a Hugo.