Author: Cherie Priest (CheriePriest.com; cmpriest; @cmpriest)
Genre: Science Fiction/Steampunk
Page Count: 413
Basic Plotline: Briar Wilkes is the widow of the man who destroyed the city of Seattle with his fearsome Boneshaker machine, intended to mine gold under the Russian ice. Now she lives on the Outskirts with her son, Zeke, trying make a living and keep her head down. But when Zeke goes into the walled off ruins of Seattle to seek answers about his father, she has to go after him, but keeping herself alive, much less rescuing her son from the perilous environment of the city - full of deadly toxic gas, zombie-like rotters, and treacherous people - may be more than she can do.
The Positives - First off, I love the cover art on this. It's half the reason I picked this up (also to support my favorite indie bookstore). See, people. This is why it's worth your while to have something to offer me besides half of an underdressed white chick with leather and tattoos. Because it will make me BUY THINGS WITH MY MONEY.
Okay, now, about the inside of the book.
I'm always appreciative when authors take places and times in history that don't get a lot of love. Steampunk tends to center on Victorian England to the point of getting exhausting, but this actually shifts the focus to an alternative universe America still under the ravages of the Civil War in the 1880's and a ruined version of Seattle that's walled off, full of poison, and isn't even part of a proper state.
Priest plays with the dates and times in history skillfully here, and I must say that the historian in me appreciates that she did this without erasing anyone or anything, and without losing an essential quality to the place and time in which she was writing about. This is still the 1880's American semi-settled frontier, and I like that when it came time to subtract or add things, the author chose to add diversity rather than take it away. The people who were just as much a part of the American West in the late 19th century are still there - African-Americans, Native Americans, Chinese Immigrants. They don't go away just because the timeline has changed. That scored a lot of point with me.
The setting is by far the book's selling point and I'd say it's reason enough to invest the time in it. I appreciated that the world and surroundings of this novel were extremely well thoughtout. Attention was definitely paid to details here and it shows.
It's also an enjoyable book over all. Not a perfect book, but it's fun. It wasn't the best book I ever read, but it's something I'd recommend to those looking for a little something different in their steampunk.
The main characters come of sympathetic enough and while I didn't grow terribly attached to them, I did like them enough to keep reading and I didn't want the rotters to eat them alive. Considering that there are some books where I end up praying that the protagonist gets blown to smithereens before I give up, that's a compliment. Briar is three-dimensional, in that she isn't a perfect mother, isn't perfectly heroic, and isn't even entirely likable at times, but very human. She comes across as doing her best when she can, somewhat tired, and knowing that some things she just can't deal with, so she doesn't. Zeke is a little less-three dimensional and I'd rather have stuck with Briar's POV the entire book than switching between her and her son's.
The plot moves at a steady enough pace, starting slow enough for the reader to get their bearings and then speeding up. I didn't see much that I thought was excessive or should have been cut.
The Negatives - Some of the negatives in the books were negatives for me, but might be a plus for other readers.
This is a heavily visual novel and that's a problem for me, because visual and spacial descriptors don't always compute for me and there are moments when Priest literally describes furniture and walls and shelves and stairs and I had to do a bit of skimming or else completely leave the book. This is part and parcel of steampunk, and not an error on the author's part. But if you're like me, sometimes the descriptions get boring and you want to get either get to the action or some witty dialogue.
The plotline isn't as strong as it could be and runs fairly predictably. I've seen this story a lot before. Child runs off for some reason, parent goes in pursuit, their story is told with alternating POV chapters, they come across a lot of helpful people along the way and in the end, somehow, their paths meet up, there's a battle, and they leave, with their new friends in tow. Or sometimes they decide to stay.
I was never once in true suspense as to whether Briar would succeed. What kept me going was actually wanting to know more about Briar's husband, the Boneshaker, and what mysteries behind this apocalyptic event might lurk in the city. On that count, I was also disappointed. The eventual story of what went down with the Boneshaker turned out to be mundane and not as exciting or unexpected as I wanted it to be.
The helpfulness of other character's due to who Briar's father was got tired after a while, and I didn't buy that just because a lawman did the right thing and didn't let prisoners suffocate to death in their cells meant that he would become such a legend that people would use his memory as a kind of law/code of honor. While I'm sure the story would circulate, it seemed too far fetched that not only was Briar the hated widow of the man who destroyed Seattle, but also the daughter of an iconic lawman. Using it as a pass to get along in the walled off city seemed contrived, as though the author couldn't think of a better way to justify why people would help Briar as much as they did.
There was a tinge of "let's all help the nice white lady at our own peril!" that did stretch my credibility, and I think it's a weak point in this book. It also took away from Briar being smart and tough enough to go after her son, get into the city, and survive there. I would have preferred if she'd been able to do that without getting so much assistance, or if the assistance she received had come at more of a price to her.
CoC Score - 6.5/10 - Fairly well done for the most part. There are Chinese, Native American, and African American characters, though none in the major cast. There were some moments where the white gaze of the narrators got problematic and one moment when describing a Black character that nearly made me put down the book. And I quote:
He grinned to display a row of shocking white teeth..
I couldn't think of any reason why an airship captain in the 19th century would HAVE teeth so white as to be shocking considering the dental hygiene of the age, and describing the teeth and eyes of dark skinned African-Americans as being extra white has been part of the racist aesthetic in America for a long time. I cringed pretty hard.
There was also a hearkening back to the "East Asians look young/don't look their age" trope that make me head desk as hard as I do when I see the whole "almond eyes" thing used:
Yaozu said, "I know." He shut the door behind them and removed his mask, revealing a perfectly bald head and smooth face that could have been twenty-five or fifty-five years old - Zeke found it impossible to guess.
I would give a slightly higher rating if not for these things, and because the CoC's in the book are pretty damn helpful to the white characters here and I'm not sure that they wouldn't have viewed white people with suspicion and caution. Though in fairness, Angeline (who is Native American and identified as Duwamish) helping Zeke and Briar at the end was also for her own reasons (to avenge her daughter by killing the person who was their mutual enemy). And many of the Chinese DO have active hostilities with the white residents.
I don't think these things ruin the book, but they do merit a lower score despite the diversity of the characters.
Gender Score: 10/10. The female characters in this, though outnumber by the male ones, all get larger parts and are well written. I didn't feel like there was an excessive gender imbalance, even though numerically there was. Briar was tough, Angeline was kickass, Lucy was charming and also pretty tough in her way. All were smart, sympathetic, had agency galore and even some power and control. I can also forgive the fact that there were more men than women. Given the areas that Briar goes into, it makes sense that it would be a male dominated space.
GLBT Score: 0/10. I give this a good faith zero. Given the time/place in which the book is set, I wouldn't expect that this story would feature openly GLBT characters or discuss those kinds of situations. This is not to say that GLBT and queer folks didn't exist then, but I definitely understand why nobody would be out in this time period and why, in the three days that Briar spends running from rotters and poison gas that she wouldn't have had the time to find out that anyone was GLBT.
Ablism Score: 8/10. There are actually PWD in this novel, and from my point of view, they're handled fairly well. I may be missing some problematic aspects, but so far as I read, the PWD in this book weren't there to be inspirational or pitied or evil. They were just people trying to survive. Rough and ragged, like everyone else, they were three dimensional. Lucy, who was missing one arm and the hand on her other arm, was quite awesome and was my favorite character in the book. She did the best with what she had, she was fun, witty, realistic and one hell of a bar owner. I actually liked her better than anyone else and almost wish she'd gotten her own book. Also, I appreciated that the PWD's in this book were not helped until they ASKED for help, and they weren't moved around or denied autonomy. Lucy is only touched/assisted when she asks to be.
The other PWD, Rudy, is not necessarily evil so much as troubled, and he isn't a bad or a good guy, just a guy who's there. He's like everyone else down there, just trying to survive and sometimes that requires ugly things. He does die in the end, but that didn't come across problematically to me.