Boneshaker (Cherie Priest)

[ETA: I seem to have misunderstood something about a remark I thought was “dangerously close to being called racist”. Please read the comments as well.]
[Just to be perfectly honest with you: I won this book in a tor.com give-away. I don’t think it’s tainted my judgment, though.]

Boneshaker is the first novel in the steampunk series (probably trilogy) The Clockwork Century by Cherie Priest.

Plot:
At the end of the 19th century in Seattle, Leviticus Blue, mad scientist, developed the Boneshaker, a huge drill. It was supposed to be used for drilling for gold in Alaska. Instead Blue uses it to drill his way under Seattle to rob a bank. Unfortunately, half the city caves in and a poisonous gas, called the Blight, escapes, turning all who breathe it in into zombies. As fast as possible, a wall is built around this part of the town that keeps the Blight and the zombies at bay.
Briar Wilkes, who used to be Blue’s wife, and her son Zeke still live in Seattle, alternately being hated for their connection to Blue and being loved (in the right circles) for their connection to Maynard Wilkes, Briar’s dad, who lost his own life freeing prisoners so they wouldn’t be stuck with the Blight.
One day, Zeke decides to head into the Old City to find out the truth about his father and his grandfather and save their reputation. Desperate with worry, Briar follows him.

I’m kind of torn when it comes to this book. On the one hand, it was thoroughly enjoyable, a quick and interesting read with good ideas. On the other hand, the language didn’t feel like 19th century at all and there seemed to be some blunders that come dangerously close to being called racist.

[Beautiful cover art.]

I very much liked Briar. What an awesome woman (in the original sense of awesome). Her character was well developped by Priest. But some of the others were a little neglected. Sometimes they felt too stereotypical and sometimes they just felt like cardboard cutouts. But on the whole I can say that most characters intrigued me and I was a little disappointed that the supporting cast got so little limelight.

The pacing was great and I liked the change between point of views, alternating between Briar and Zeke (each with their own little illustration at the beginning of the chapter). The plot, apart from a twist that I thought I saw coming which then turned out that I didn’t, was not very innovative but in this case, I didn’t mind.

It was the language that threw me a little. As I said before, it didn’t feel right. Having characters answer the question “can I ask you something?” with “shoot”, for example, felt terribly out of place. I’m no language expert, maybe it was a totally frequently used phrase at the time and of course some concessions should be made for the alternate history thingummy, but still. I can’t explain it other than it just felt too modern.

Which makes my second problem stand out even more: I always got a little shock when Priest used the word “negro”. I had to keep reminding myself that it’s the end of the 19th century and that that’s okay. I think that was partly because the language felt so anachronistic. (And why, if you don’t mind the language that much, do you have to use the words that have essentially become racial slurs?) Anyway, I can live with that, even if it tainted my enjoyment of the whole thing a little.
But then there’s one scene where a black man’s arm is likened to that of a gorilla – and people, that just hurt. And it was so unnecessary. And it just wasn’t okay. I’ll give Ms Priest the benefit of the doubt here and say that she just didn’t realise that black people have a history of being likened to apes. Maybe a 19th century person would have thought that, but there’s no need to reproduce it in a steampunk novel. [ETA: See comments.]
And then there were the Chinese, who toil away in the walled city to get some fresh air in. And they were just … there. If they had been robots, it wouldn’t really have made a difference.

So. I’ve got mixed feelings about this one. I’d say, if you’re interested, don’t buy but borrow and see if you like it.

Also, and this is totally weird and completely me, the book was printed brown on white and not black on white. And everytime I opened the book, I had a moment of confusion until I reminded myself that the writing really was brown. [Or was it? ;)]

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4 thoughts on “Boneshaker (Cherie Priest)

  1. I don’t usually respond to reviews, but I’ll go ahead and make one small response here: The reference to the “gorilla” arm was a comparison of size, not color — and it was used to indicate the giant air captain, Andan Cly (who is white).

    I was pretty sure this was the case, so I just now went back and looked at the text to double-check, and in fact, the next line clarifies that the arm in question was a white arm.

    So I do apologize if the inference went the other way; I didn’t realize that anyone would read it like that. It’s a tricky scene with several people in it, none of whom are named at first — and the gorilla reference was meant to imply that one of the men in question was abnormally large (thus hopefully leading the reader to infer that it was Cly).

    As for repetitive use of the word “negro,” I used it simply because it was the polite descriptor in the 19th century. I could’ve used a much more impolite one (which sadly, would’ve been more period correct) but for obvious reasons I opted not to.

    • In that case, I seem to have read this wrongly and I apologise. But I guess it’s a good pointer that I was able to read it that way. [And I should probably look at mself for coming to that conclusion instead of the way you intended it.]

      As for the word “negro”: I understand why you chose to use it. My remark was more about me as a reader than you as a writer. With that being said, I still felt like it stuck out because the rest of the language in the book didn’t seem to be that 19th century-like.

      In any case, I wanted to thank you for dropping by and clearing up the gorilla thing. And for doing it calmly and without being, or at least sounding, offended.

      [Also, I feel totally honoured to have you here. Now I’m only like 2 steps away from internet domination. :)]

  2. Happy to be of service, and thanks for being open-minded on the point. I think perhaps if the two lines had been in the same paragraph, it would’ve made the point more clear; so that’s definitely something for me to keep in mind in the future.

    My only excuse is that since I, personally knew that I wasn’t referring to Croggon Hainey, it didn’t occur to me that anyone else might think I *was*.

    You’re generally right re: the language, by the way. I deliberately didn’t go too over-the-top with it, partly because my characters are working-class and not terribly well educated (thus no “high Victorian” diction), and partly because I wanted to keep it accessible to modern readers. But aggressive anachronism … I tried to avoid. (I know I failed at least once or twice, but oh well. All I can do is try to be better next time!)

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to review it – and I’m glad that overall you liked it :)

    • Personally, I think you could be a little more audacious with the language – I think it could really add to the experience. And in my experience, SciFi and Steampunk readers don’t really mind a little complexity in the language.

      But, as usual, I can be totally wrong about this. :)

      Anyway, I really want to say that I appreciate this discussion – it’s nice to see that not every mention of racism automatically transforms into RaceFail (especially since I was sloppy and you would have every right to be pissed off).

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