Boneshaker—Young Adult Novel in the Steampunk Genre

As my introduction to the Steampunk genre, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest is an adventure in intrigue, survival and family secrets. Just in case anyone else shares my ignorance concerning Steampunk, Wikipedia defines it as “a sub-genre of science fiction, alternate history, and speculative fiction. Steampunk involves an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century and often Victorian era Britain—that incorporates prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy.” Cherie alters the time and space of 1880’s Seattle as well as the history of the Klondike and the Civil War, but I had no difficulty suspending reality and fully falling under her storytelling spell.

In 1863, Leviticus Blue, renowned inventor and engineer, creates an incredible bone-shaking drill engine that will allow Russian prospectors to drill through the nearly impenetrable Klondike ice to prospect for gold. The Russians have promised to reward him handsomely if he can build an acceptable piece of machinery, but on its test run, Blue’s machine wreaks havoc. Tunneling under the city and undermining buildings and roads, Blue and his invention destroy downtown Seattle and alter the course of the city’s future. The machine hits a vein of poisonous gas that, when inhaled, turns its victims into the living dead. Survivors flee the devastated city and eventually build a wall around Seattle to contain the lethal blight gas.

Sixteen years later, Ezekial Wilkes questions his mother, Briar, about his father who died before he was born. Faced with painful memories and a maternal desire to protect Zeke from the ugly truth, Briar decides it is best for him to live in ignorance. Zeke knows that his father, Leviticus Blue, built the Boneshaker and is in some ways responsible for the tragedy in Seattle, but he is convinced that the rumors about his dad are wrong. Many people believe that Blue accepted a large sum of money from the Russians and that he also stole money out of the vaults in the collapsed bank buildings. But if that were true, why would he and his mother be living in nearly abject poverty in the Outskirts of Seattle? It just doesn’t add up for Zeke, so in typical teenage fashion, he decides that the only way to clear the family name once and for all is to go into the city and take his chances there. He is convinced that there are clues in his parents’ abandoned home in Seattle that will vindicate his father and his reputation.

Crawling in through a water runoff tunnel, Zeke enters the blighted city. He is almost immediately met by Rudy, a defector from the Civil War raging in the east, who assures Zeke that he will help him find his old family home. Rudy is instrumental in teaching Zeke how to survive the “rotters,” the undead roaming the city in hoards who have breathed the blight gas and become hungry for bloody, human flesh. Rudy guides Zeke through tunnels and abandoned buildings supposedly leading him to his parents’ home, but Zeke is not completely sure he can trust Rudy. His suspicions are heightened when an aged Indian princess warns Zeke that Rudy only wants to take him to Dr. Minericht, the deranged architect responsible for the many wonderful and strange machines and inventions in underground Seattle.

Incredibly frightened, but willing to do anything to save Zeke, Briar knows she must follow him into the city. She hitches a ride on an airship captained by a colorful pilot who owes her dead father a favor. Once inside Seattle, she discovers a colony of people anxious to help her find her missing son. Facing armored men, an elaborate underground labyrinth, and an elegant palace inhabited by a man some think is the living Leviticus Blue, Boneshaker leads the reader on an adventure driven by loyalty and a mother’s determination to find her son, alive.

Boneshaker is an engaging venture into the Steampunk world that keeps the reader anxious throughout, and while I enjoyed this book, I need to add a word of caution for the sensitive or younger reader. This book was advertised on the front page of my 8th grade daughter’s book order and, I believe, is a book that can be enjoyed by older teenagers and adults alike. However, there is a fairly steady stream of swearing and profanity throughout the book. There are also racial slurs and discrimination aimed at the Chinese laborers who keep Seattle somewhat habitable by pumping in fresh air through large tubes. Some violent images, including two murders, both accomplished by slitting the throat from ear to ear, may be disturbing for some. “Rotters” are described quite graphically with their decaying skin, missing limbs and insatiable desire for bloody human flesh. Briar and other inhabitants of Seattle shoot many of them in self-defense. There is also drug and alcohol use, drug trafficking and an allusion is made to prostitution.

Cherie Priest ably and believably plants the reader in a deserted and dark Seattle where the eerie silence is “holding its breath, and listening.” I felt claustrophobic along with Zeke and Briar as they donned gas masks and entered the underground world of Seattle where fresh air is seldom available. I gasped every time the vile rotters pursued their live prey or grabbed someone’s wrist or leg. I sympathized with Briar and her desire to protect Zeke from the truth, but then again, honesty would have saved them a whole lot of trouble. This captivatingly written book will certainly thrill the Steampunk and sci-fi disciple, but is equally accessible to less avid fans of this genre.

Jennifer Hafen Stevenson is the mother of 4 young readers. She enjoys life in the beautiful Rocky Mountains with her husband and family where they love to ski and hike. Jennifer is a co-founder of