Blimps! Zombies! A mad German scientist! It’s Boneshaker, Cherie Priest’s alternate history/steampunk novel set in what’s left of Seattle.
In 1860, the Russians found gold in them thar hills up in Alaska. The trouble was there was no way to get to it under all that ice. They sponsored a contest to build a machine that would do the job. A bizarre man from Seattle named Leviticus Blue won, building his “Boneshaker.” Blue tested the Boneshaker and wrecked the bustling frontier port. Days later, a mysterious gas known as “blight” leaked out, killing some, turning others into…
Well, Priest doesn’t say it, but they become flesh-eating zombies called “rotters.” Seattle is walled up to contain the blight, but some people don’t leave. They find ways to survive.
Twenty years later, Ezekiel Wilkes, Blue’s son, decides to breach the city to find proof that his father was innocent, that the Boneshaker’s havoc was not his fault. Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes, decides to go after Zeke. When an earthquake seals off the drains that allow passage into Seattle, Briar uses the air technology of the day to drop in – airships, specifically one stolen by a black pilot from the still-fighting Confederacy. She drops into a world where rotters hunt humans in mindless packs, everyone at street level wears masks, and air is pumped in by Chinese workers to underground living space. She finds people who have survived on an independent spirit but are under the thumb of the mysterious Dr. Minnericht. The Doctor has something to hide, and most people think it’s his true identity. Most people believe he is Leviticus Blue.
Boneshaker is a fun romp through a well-shaken mashup of Harry Turtledove’s post-Civil War south, a Seattle twenty years ahead of its time before it is rendered a rotter-strewn wasteland, and your favorite B movie from the 1950’s. Priest’s Seattle has grown because the Russians have found gold 20 years before it was actually found in Alaska. Her America is still divided by the Civil War, though the South is only holding on by grit and the survival of Stonewall Jackson. And Dr. Minnericht is straight off the old Saturday afternoon horror shows of old, a man in a breathing mask predating Darth Vader by about 97 years, but more at home in a low-rent version of James Bond. He is also sufficiently intriguing. Briar knows the truth about Leviticus Blue, but with the secret kept to herself, it’s impossible not to believe Minnericht is who he says he is. Then again, even Briar’s belief waivers eventually.
Boneshaker is fun. After all, when you have a mad scientist and zombies, what more could you want?