Each year, I try to read all of the novels on the short list of the Hugo Award. I’m not a voter, but I like to decide which of the five finalists I liked the best.
Some years, I’m ahead of the game in terms of reading the books on the short list. Others I’m a bit more behind. This year was one of those years when I was behind a bit. I’d only read one of the five finalists, though I’d had three of the other four on my "to be read" radar for some time. The most intriguing (based solely on the buzz and what I knew about the story before I cracked the cover) was Cherie Priest’s "Boneshaker."
Part alternate history, part zombie story, part steampunk novel, "Boneshaker" tells the story of an alternate universe turn of the century Seattle in which the Civil War hasn’t end on the East Coast and a disaster sixteen years earlier has released a yellow gas that slowly turns humans into zombie-like creatures. The area of the city most affected the gas has been walled off, though some still live within either as a flesh-eating zombie or through the use of caution and gas masks to filter away the gas. The only ways in or out are via the sewers that run under the city or from above in the form of giant airships.
The story centers on Briar Wilkes, the widow of the man who created the titular Boneshaker that released the gas. Her son, Ezekiel, is tired of the rumors about his father and decides he’ll head into the walled off section of the city to prove his father wasn’t as bad as history makes him out to be. When an earthquake makes the tunnels under the city impassible, Briar is forced to try and hitch a ride on an airship to follow her son inside and rescue him.
As a universe, "Boneshaker" is a fascinating, complex and rich place. One fascinating aspect is a drug called Sap, which is a crack or meth form of the gas that is created and sold throughout Seattle. The drug has the unintended affect of being highly addictive as well as slowly transforming its users into zombie-like creatures. It’s details and threads like this one that put "Boneshaker" above other steampunk novels I’ve read this year. What also puts it above them is that the steampunk details are naturally incorporated into the story instead of simply put into play to draw attention to themselves and point out how clever the author is being (this was the case with "Leviathan," a book I wanted to love).
Part of the strength comes from the characters of Briar and Ezekiel. Priest has populated her world with interesting, believable characters and the quest of both trying to find answers or each other helps keep the novel moving along. There are some moments to stop and explore the universe, but the novel never loses its momentum or narrative flow.
In short, I can see why the story was short listed for the Hugo. And while it’s a great read and a lot of fun, I can see why it didn’t necessarily win. It’s a solid enough start to a universe and series. As for where it ranks on my order for Hugo nominees for last year, I’ll have to read the other stories given a nod and get back to you.