Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.
John Milton, Paradise Lost
SciFi Essential Book, Tor, 2009
Briar Wilkes Blue is a woman of secrets, the widow of one notorious man and the daughter of another. In 1880 Seattle, Briar and her teenaged son Ezekiel live in aching poverty on the outskirts of the ruined city. Downtown Seattle has been destroyed and walled off, filled with a fatally toxic gas called the Blight. The Blight kills, transforming the infected person into a living-dead revenant with no thought or instinct except for the hunger for flesh. The man who released the Blight into the city 16 years ago was Leviticus Blue, Briar’s husband. He drove his subterranean drilling device, Boneshaker, under the streets of the financial district, causing streets and buildings to collapse, and opening the fissure that released the gas.
The city was evacuated and a twenty-story wall erected around the infected area, downtown and the financial district. Briar, like thousands of others, fled her Denny Hill home carrying nothing but the household silverware and, although she didn’t know it then, Levi’s son.
As seems to be the case with any sub-genre that ends in “punk”—in this case steampunk—drugs and drug-dealers drive much of the plot of Boneshaker. Unscrupulous and inventive chemists have discovered that a distillation of the Blight gas, called “lemon sap,” is a highly addictive and ultimately fatal drug. This means there is traffic between the walled city and the outskirts. There are two ways in; over the wall via dirigible or airship, or under, through the sewer outtakes.
Briar is a woman of many thoughts and few words, and for fifteen years she has said nothing to her son about his father, or his grandfather, Maynard Wilkes, who holds legendary status in the ruined city. They have gone back to the name of Wilkes, even though everyone knows who they are, and both Briar and Zeke face constant harassment, and they live in the old Wilkes house. Maynard died of the Blight, a lawman who risked exposure to help others evacuate, and Briar hasn’t entered her father’s room since the authorities dug up his body and took it away to make sure he would not regenerate as a “rotter” or zombie. When Zeke gets it into his head to go into the ruined city to find some evidence that will exonerate his father, Briar prepares to go after him by entering her father’s room and donning his hat, his overcoat, a belt with a wide buckle with the initials MW, and taking his goggles, an old gasmask, his leather satchel and his Spencer repeating rifle. The tone of the scene is somber, Briar a young knight preparing herself for a quest. Her quest is for her son.
Zeke enters the city through the sewer tunnels, and immediately discovers that there are more than “rotters” in the walled city. There are humans, drawing clear air into underground chambers via long standpipes and suction fans, wearing gasmasks for the brief periods they are out and exposed to the Blight, using the tops of the highest buildings to rendezvous with airships. Priest reminds us of the masks constantly and there is no monotony in it. Masks are life. Zeke and Briar, newcomers, are more aware of them than the locals. Masks restrict vision. The activated charcoal filter pads that capture the Blight must be changed out frequently. In an early scene, Briar is running from rotters, laboring for breath, her lungs and ribs hurting as she tries to suck clean air in over clogged pads. Imagine running for your life while breathing through a pillow. The masks sweat inside. Zeke and Briar frequently hit them when they reach to scratch an itch or rub away a sting. Toward the end of the book, Zeke, who is underground, has lost his mask. In trying to escape, he gets a mask from a dead man. He thinks, as he fastens it on, that the condensation on the inside came from the last breath of that man. The equation is that simple.
The use of masks also makes it easier for Priest to create the air of mystery that surrounds the elusive and powerful Dr. Minnericht. Minnericht lives in the main train terminal, which was completed just before the Boneshaker collapse. He has refurbished it with electric light and many elaborate inventions, some of which Briar recognizes from her dead husband’s sketches. Minnericht has accrued tremendous power in the city, through his clockwork inventions and his drug dealing, and many of the surviving humans suspect that he is, in fact, Levi Blue. They go to him for help, they fear him, but no one dares confront him because he is too powerful, and now it appears that his wife and his son have entered his kingdom.
Briar carries with her two disparate legacies; through Levi, that of destruction and horror, and through Maynard, one of order and peace. Her identification as “Maynard’s girl” gives her entrée into the ruined city and affords her some respect, although it is not enough to protect her from Minnericht. Briar is strong, stubborn, brave and intelligent, all the while accepting the estimation of her father and later her husband; that she was of little worth, mainly “something to look nice in the parlor.” Throughout the book she defines herself as a bad mother, even though she is courting nearly certain death to save her son.
The book is full of action and derring-do, and captures the sense of a frontier. Priest unapologetically plays with history, making the Klondike gold rush happen earlier and having several characters mention that the United States civil war is entering its nineteenth year (but the South will cave soon, everyone says). The inventiveness of the underground society in the ruined city is wonderful, with its lifts, its rickety wooden ramps and bridges above the soupy yellow fog of the Blight, with the human-powered air exchangers and air tubes. People have managed to thrive, and Minnericht, of course, has nearly built a kingdom. At the same time, no one mounts an expedition to try to close the fissure from which the deadly gas leaks. As Lucy, a mechanical-armed bar owner, points out, the walled city is filling up like a bowl being fed from the bottom. Some day, or some year, the gas will reach the top, and then spill over the side. A couple of times during the book, people wish that the government “back east” would look away from the war and consider making Washington a state, and come help. As most pioneers know, however, when you’re at the edge of the frontier, if you want something done, you do it yourself.
The book periodically suffered from anachronistic language, but there was so much happening in this book that I didn’t really mind it. The pace is not break-neck, but once Zeke and Briar are both behind the wall, the action never really stops. Briar is an intriguing, compelling character and just who you want at your side in a fight. At times the sensibility is like that of H. Rider Haggard or Jules Verne. This is a SciFi Essential Book. I don’t know what that means, but it’s essential to my bookshelf.