Zombie book bites off more than it can chew: when I realized I'd been reading Cherie Priest's Boneshaker for over a month, I knew it had problems. Boneshaker isn't terrible, but it fails to deliver even as a popcorn penny-dreadful adventure--it's burdened with unnecessary exposition and monotonous movement from point to point. It's a 400-page story about walking from one place to another and back again.
The premise: it's Civil War-era Seattle, in an alternate steampunk-influenced reality where the war didn't end, airships cruise the skies, and an eccentric scientist named Leviticus Blue built a gold-mining machine that raged out of control and uncovered a terrible secret beneath the city: a seeping gas called the Blight that transforms people into rotters--zombies. The poisoned part of the city is walled off, and life marches on...until Blue's estranged son, Zeke, decides to go on a quest inside the walls to learn the truth about his publically-despised father. The story revolves around Zeke and his mother, Briar, who follows her son inside the walls to rescue him.
I was sold on the premise right off the bat: steampunk, zombies, poison gas, airship pirates--expecting an adventure full of wild characters, monsters, and machines, I descended on the book like a ravening revenant.
The problem is one of both plot and prose. Plot-wise, there is nothing more to the narrative than a mother chasing her son through the quarantined city. Along the way, encounters with the gruesome rotters are few, and easily avoided. The airship pirates figure peripherally, serving as devices to get characters from Point A to Point B. Denizens of the inner city are mere guides, shepherding mother and son on their way, and explaining how life within the walls works. In a sense, it evokes a criticism of The Lord of the Rings: the action consists of Walking, With Occasional Running.
In many ways, the rotters, pirates, and fanciful machines just feel like narrative fashion accessories--the rotters are such a non-presence that their inclusion merely functions as a disappointment. A brief, up-close encounter towards the end is snuffed short with a rifle blast. It becomes clear early on that this isn't a "zombie book," but neither is it really an adventure. The prose is flat, workmanlike, and marred with awkward descriptions and turns of phrase. In particular, the use of the word "proactive" was jarring to me. This word wasn't even coined until 1933, and wasn't in popular use till decades later.
Of course, this isn't reality, but alternate reality--as Priest explains rather defensively, and almost condescendingly, in an Author's Note after the Epilogue. I happened to read that note first (I like to skim through bonus content in a book to see if it offers any insight into the text), and it put a sour, Blight-like taste in my mouth. This note was unnecessary--the book is categorized under fiction--and made the author come across as controlling of her audience, and insecure of her work.
Interestingly, I noticed that same lecturing, defensive tone in the prose itself. There is much more Tell than Show--characters speak nearly every thought that pops into their heads, talking about rather than experiencing their feelings, and the world of zombified Seattle is largely described through dialogue that reads like an oral history. The end result is a strangely disconnected sense of being told about a story, rather than experiencing it through the characters.
Ultimately, Boneshaker aimed for high adventure and considerably missed the mark. However disappointed I am with the actual product, Priest still did some fantastic world-building, and I want to see her try again with a more compelling narrative set in this alternate reality. If Boneshaker had been told from the point-of-view of the hard-bitten denizens of the inner city, rather than the hapless pair who stumble around inside for a couple of days, it might have lived up to its wild premise. Fortunately, Priest has a quirky cast of disused oddballs to draw from for future tales in Blighted Seattle.