Lately I've been trying to catch up on my Hugo award nominated novels, a process I've used in the past to discover a great number of hot authors and often hot streaks. Granted, the Hugo voting system is not without its flaws: members pay for the right to cast their vote, few of them have likely read a large field of authors producing genre works in a given year (excepting the authors themselves, who often vote), and you often wind up with mind numbingly underwhelming or indifferent works, when far more ambitious, unique stories go completely under the radar. Anyways, I've found a large number of authors through the nominations, and having already reviewed China Miéville brilliant gimmick wrapped up in mediocre detective romp The City & The City (which just tied to win the 2010 award with Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl), I've decided to flesh out at least a few of this year's selections.
***SPOILERS OFF THE STARBOARD BOW***
Cherie Priest is no newcomer to the 'steampunk' movement, with a number of novels already under her belt, but with her first Hugo nominated novel, has set out to create a tour de force series to help pour a little concrete into the newly focused sub-genre. Elements, in particular the technological level sand settings of this style have appeared for decades, but lately it's been all the rage, not only in fiction but in sub culture fashion. Boneshaker takes place in a Seattle devastated by a malfunctioning digging machine, which the lead characters' husband (and father) ambitiously created for the Russians who were digging Klondike gold in Alaska. The inventor, Leviticus Blue, succumbs to a little greedy hubris when he decides to use the digging machine to rob the local banks, accidentally releasing a poisonous gas ('Blight') that turns many of the denizens of 19th century Seattle into...you guessed it, zombies.
The events of the novel take place 16 years after the dreaded event, when Blue's wife Briar and son Ezekiel are living as paupers in the Outskirts, which lay beyond the wall that was built (in plenty of time, apparently) to cage in the zombie horde. Some scrappers and 'Doornails' have decided to remain, the ruined city is accessed only by airships and tunnels beneath the wall, and when 'Zeke' opts to seek out his family's Seattle home and possibly clear his father's name, Briar chases after him. The novel switches between both of these characters as they eventually converge in true Finding Nemo fashion, and the trade off thankfully keeps the action moving at an adequate pace. Neither of them is particularly interesting or likable with the exception of their affixed mother-son relationship, and they speed full steam engine ahead towards their not so happy ending and a minor revelation that in no way seems a justifiable payoff.
Along the way, we encounter grizzled Fallout-style apocalyptic survivors who have carved out a niche in the ruins, air pirates and smugglers (who honestly seem to just be here to include the stock steampunk airships within the story, which could have just as easily been replaced with a damned ladder for all we know). The zombies, or 'rotters' become the same mindless, running fodder rabble as they've appeared now in so many films and stories, and are very soon rendered all but harmless as they seem only able to take out minor characters that we have no concern for. In fact, they're rendered so non-frightening that one must sincerely wonder how they've kept their numbers up for over a decade? I understand that Priest shifted a few historical facts around, advancing the Klondike rush a few decades to make sure Seattle had a large enough population to boast a good number of the zombies, but still they remained finite to the point that they could easily have been dispatched.
It is this sort of disparate layout that actually crippled my enjoyment of the novel. The rotters are just one example. We are also presented with a cliche masked villain who turns out to be completely ineffectual. If it were so easy to overthrow this man, why had the Doornails and scrappers not already done it? Clearly he is not nearly the threat he is built up to be throughout the book, and this comes as a major disappointment. Peripheral characters are introduced, made out to be intimidating or important, then suddenly disappear. Much of the important final conflict between the rotters, the Doornails and Dr. Minnericht's sentries is offered in the background, feeling wholly anti-climactic, which is a shame as the action throughout the earlier chapters is fluid and keeps the pages turning.
Priest has a good grasp of the underlying mechanics to make all her gadgets work here, but as so often occurs in steampunk novels outside of The Different Engine, or Sean McMullen's close to steampunk Greatwinter trilogy, the technology is just 'there'. It's not irrelevant to the alternate history she's created, in fact it has played a major factor in steering that very history, but it's not really important to the story itself outside of just blending into the backdrop. This is pretty much your standard action packed ' family reunion' quest, and the pirates, the airships, the zombies and the underground survivors are all just disposable means to this end. Ultimately, I found the tale to be a little frustrating, because the setup itself seemed to reek of more than just the Blight, and the many interesting effects it has on the surrounding environment/society, and the cookie cutter villain is a major letdown.
Boneshaker is by no means a bad attempt. It provides a brisk if forgettable 400+ pages, and in spots, it creates the vague impression of 'fun' that one would expect from its constituent, if cliche components. I feel the author is more than adept at action and pacing, and quite descriptive, but none of the characters reined me in, and I'm a little surprised that something like this was Hugo worthy, though the voting committee has made concessions for far inferior novels in the past.
Verdict: Indifference [6/10]