Review: Boneshaker

Posted: April 2, 2010 by in Books that are Mediocre (3/5 single_star) Meta: Cherie Priest, Steampunk

Steampunk. You can hardly go wrong with it. It’s that genre that is filled with airships, goggles and adventure. With the novel BONESHAKER (Amazon), Cherie Priest tries her hand at the steampunk genre.

We had heard a lot about this novel. Authors, editors, and readers everywhere called it amazing. We had heard it called one of the best steampunk novels ever written. Do you see where this is going? Yeah. We were let down. WAY down.

We’ll start with the premise. BONESHAKER takes place in Seattle during and after the gold rush in the Klondike. It is an interesting period in US history, and a great place to introduce a steampunk technology. The idea here is that a contest was held to see who could invent a machine that could easily tunnel through the snow, ice, and rock to excavate the gold. Leviticus Blue, living in Seattle, invents such a machine–the Boneshaker. The first time the machine is turned on, however, it destroys nearly the entire town. In the aftermath of the destruction, the deep diggings the Boneshaker uncover a gas that essentially turns people into zombies. Seattle is walled off, and chapter one starts 15 years after the described events. Out main characters are Briar and Zeke Wilkes, the wife and son of Leviticus Blue. It is a cool mesh of ideas in theory, but the execution was lacking in nearly every aspect.

What let us down with this novel? Well, nothing was really developed. There were times where we felt like we were reading an outline of ideas rather than a fully developed story. Think about it. We have all the steampunk tropes; adventure, airships, clockwork and gear based machinery, and goggles (you can’t have steampunk without goggles). We have some cool alternate history that is set during the gold rush and the Civil War. We have zombies, Native Americans, and sky pirates. The list goes on. Yet the book is a short 400 pages. There just wasn’t enough time to give any depth to the awesome mesh of ideas. By not having too many interesting, but shallowly described ideas yelling for our attention, we found it difficult to connect with anything. BONESHAKER may have benefited from being longer, and more detailed.

The characters in the novel should have been interesting, but instead left us feeling rather “meh.” Zeke runs into the walled city of Seattle to find proof that his father and grandfather were good people. Briar follows him. The worry they feel, and their relationship should have drawn us to the main PoVs. Instead, their relationship was devoid of the details that normally would draw us to them. We just couldn’t make ourselves care about them. The side characters felt mostly like cardboard cut-outs that were just there for scenery. The sky pirates/smugglers are lame, and the Native American Princess felt tacked on and random. In short, the characters were impossible to connect with, and were boring. They were random bits of filler that did more harm than good.

Now, in a steampunk novel, some shortcomings can be overlooked if the adventure aspect or the technological aspect of the novel is executed well. Neither was the case in BONESHAKER. The action was so muddled, that at times it took a few re-reads of the pages just to determine what was actually happening. The steampunk technology? There really wasn’t any. Really, it was all limited to people wearing gas masks. There are very brief mentions and showings of airships, a chick has a mechanical arm, and the breathing systems people use get fancy at times. That’s it. No clockwork robots. The actual Boneshaker machine is never shown in action. In fact, the novel is barely steampunk at all. The zombies? Shown maybe three times, and they don’t manage to lend any sort of menace or scare to the story. Again, filler.

With all the bad, surely there must be something good, right? Well yeah. The moments between muddled action sequences are well written, if lacking in detail. The idea of how Seattle became a walled-in disaster was excellently done. The book itself is awesome looking. The cover is great, and the ink color of the text is a brownish color that perfectly fit the time-frame of the story.

We felt BONESHAKER was just mediocre--a case of overhype leading to disappointment.

A lot of people liked BONESHAKER. A lot of people will pick up this book and love it. We, however, just felt is was mediocre. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t anywhere close to the awesomeness that were were led to believe. Maybe that was part of why we were so underwhelmed.

If you are a die-hard reader of steampunk, then you could probably find something here to like, but it won’t live up to the other novels of the same genre that you have already read. If you are a complete newbie to steampunk, this book could serve as an introduction to the genre that you may find decent.

  • Recommended Age: 15+
  • Language: Some. And fairly strong in the short bursts when it happens.
  • Violence: There is some violence, but it is described poorly
  • Sex: Nope


  • Honesty is our best quality…well, besides handsomeness, awesomeness, taste in novels, and humility.

    Honestly though, this is one book that I wish I would have read before all the hype. It makes me wonder if Nick and I would have been less disappointed. Oh well.

    Thankfully, I have the next George Mann steampunk at home, as well as Mann's GHOSTS OF MANHATTAN. Those books are full of win.

  • Caleb says:

    This was my first steampunk, and I'm glad to read this review, as it means it wasn't just me not clicking with the subgenre. Really, I wouldn't even recommend it to newcomers to the genre, because I found it hard to find anything to keep me reading. Not even the big mystery about the doctor, since the big reveal at the Blue house in the end was pretty much telegraphed from the first time Briar was so confident about what she knew. In the end, I finished it just so I could see if it became better at the end, but it let me down there as well.

    So, do you guys have a recommendation for a really good steampunk novel to read as a second chance for the style?

    • You could try George Mann's THE AFFINITY BRIDGE. We reviewed it a few months back. It is like a Sherlock Holmes novel but in a steampunk setting. WHITECHAPEL GODS is effing awesome. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer edited a steampunk anthology called STEAMPUNK that not only has some good stories in it, but has articles/essays on what steampunk is, and why it is nifty–prolly a good reference for your GM self. In a classic sense, you could read H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. I've heard THE COURT OF THE AIR is decent, though I have yet to read my copy.

    • Will says:

      I'm gonna second the Steampunk anthology. Truly awesome stuff in there, for me the essays more so than the stories. The Affinity Bridge is another fantastic recommendation. I'd include Girl Genius as well. Although not a novel, it was one of my first introductions to steampunk (although the creators prefer gaslamp fantasy) and the comic has both fantastic art and writing.

  • Daniel B. says:

    This is exactly what I appreciate about you guys: you give an honest review. I picked this up, after a much hyped review from a site that I will not name, and I was severely disappointed. High expectations means great let down, right?

    Unlike you, since I wasn't going to review it, I didn't even finish it. Life's too short, and there are too many good books to read.

    But back to my point. That you would give an honest review–not just glowing “warm and fuzzy” accolades that will attract publisher attention and provide you with an piles of first-read editions for you reading pleasure–says a lot about your discriminating taste and integrity. And it's part of the reason that the Elitists of are, by far, my favorite and most trust reviewers. So many of the fantasy and sci-fi book review sites out there publish glowing review after glowing review…and the books don't always match up to the hype. In fact, they OFTEN don't.

    (it also doesn't hurt that you tend to agree with my opinions, too, but that's another thing all together.)

    Keep it up. Thanks for the great and discriminating reviews, both informative and entertaining to read.

  • Caleb says:

    PS… the person I would recommend the book to would be a GM of a roleplaying group looking for a setting, because as Steve said, it's an awesome mesh of ideas that seems to have a lot going for it. It could make for an interesting mesh of role-playing tropes.

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