This month’s Feature Article will be examining Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. A lot has been written about Boneshaker, and like many books, it has both its proponents and detractors. I read it very quickly, which is a testament to its entertainment value, and while I liked it and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good fast-paced steampunk story, I will not claim that it was a perfect book. That said, I did go back and reread the opening chapters because they had left such a strong impression on me, and after the reread, I was even more convinced that the strength of the novel was a result of the well crafted opening scene; however, it became even more apparent that the remainder of the novel, while good, did not match the opening in quality, and perhaps it is this difference that explains the wide discrepancy in opinion on the novel.
Mood, scene and back-story were perfectly set in the opening chapters, and it was almost impossible not to want to connect with Briar and Zeke, the “want to” here being the key phrase. The rest of the novel never quite lived up to those initial scenes, and after contemplating the work as a whole, I think it did weaken after chapter five once the adventure started. It wasn’t that the action that followed was bad or poorly written, it was just that the growth and depth of character that was initially intimated never really occurred with either Briar or Zeke, so much so, that I started to wonder if it wasn’t intentional on Priest’s part. This led me to stepping back and reexamining Briar from a different perspective, one that didn’t necessarily require her to be a heroic figure, but rather a tragic figure.
Was Briar, the withdrawn and slightly bitter recluse we see in the opening chapters, really any different as an older woman than she was as the young wife of Leviticus Blue, a young wife who really had no idea what her husband was doing? Was there really anything interesting about her, or was it really her infamous husband and father who defined her? Was Priest asking us to take a rather ordinary person at face value with Briar?
By taking a different look at Briar, Priest is not exonerated for not meeting many of our expectations regarding Briar, but I wonder if it wasn’t the reader’s unfulfilled expectations that wished for character different from the one Priest chose to give us that caused some of the disconnect, and that if this disconnect in expectations wasn’t what accounted for some of the complaints. Of course, I cannot answer how Priest may have intended the reader to view Briar, and at any rate, each individual reader will determine it anyway.
I would like to comment on one nagging problem I had with Briar, which was her motivation to go after Zeke. During my initial read, I wasn’t convinced that Briar would have actually gone after Zeke, especially since the bond between them was so purposefully weak in first the few chapters. It wasn’t until I started looking at Briar as a tragic figure defined mostly by the actions of her father and husband that I got it. Once I accepted that her empty life had been entirely defined by her husband and father, it is clear that the only thing that remained to give her any identity was her son. Therefore, Briar’s reason for doing anything simply became the classic everything for the child motivation. Without Zeke, she was truly nothing.
I would like to comment on the role of motivation as a whole in Boneshaker. Many critics have raised the obvious question: why would anyone have even stayed near the dead city much less chosen to live inside with the blight and the zombies? I actually had no issues with this, and I chalked it up as the same reasoning that caused people to load themselves onto wagon trains and head west in the first place. Besides, failing to suspend ones disbelief here renders the entire story moot, and I guess I just chose not to let this hinder Priest’s storytelling.
Therefore, to summarize, I think Boneshaker was a well written and entertaining read. It may not meet the toughest of scrutiny, but I’m sure people picking up a steampunk novel are not really looking for a perfect piece of fiction. It is a unique and interesting story that, for the most part, deserves all the accolades it has received.