Thursday, May 31, 2012

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest: A Disappointment

Cherie Priest's Boneshaker is advertised as an awesomely exciting steampunk book and has some seriously intriguing cover art:

The front and back covers are plastered with quotes like "A steampunk-zombie-airship adventure of rollicking pace and sweeping proportions, full of wonderfully gnarly details. This book is made of irresistible." It's being made into a movie and Wil Wheaton reads the chapters with the male lead for the audiobook. This book and I were made to be best friends. When I saw that it was one of the employee recommendations in Borders (/sob) I had a Liz Lemon "I want to go to there" moment and snatched it up immediately.

If it had lived up to even half of the hype, I would have been satisfied. Sadly, the two main characters are just--flat. I don't find either of them particularly compelling and was underwhelmed by the steampunk, zombie, and airship aspects.

Zombies should be terrifying! I should worry! There should be fleshy bits and people getting turned or eaten and it should all make me afraid to walk down my dark hallway. Sure, The Walking Dead series and graphic novels have probably spoiled me a bit but it was like Priest was trying to tell middle schoolers about zombies without worrying them. Only one person was turned in the book and it was the result of too much of a certain poisoned beverage, not a bite. Only one person was bitten, and *minor spoiler* since it was the main character, I wasn't particularly worried that the bite would have penetrated her thick gloves as that would have obviously derailed the plot.

Everyone knows that if you want to raise the stakes you have to be willing to kill off a few characters. I can't recall one death that I was concerned about. And the "major" twist/reveal at the end? Way too heavily foreshadowed. I guessed it after the first hint and spent the book going "Yes, I know" while the characters hemmed and hawed about what might have happened. I really had to force myself to finish it because by halfway through I really didn't care anymore about any of it.

Lack of interest in the overall plot aside, I had a few issues with the way that the novel handled the main character, Briar Wilkes, and the racial "others". Briar is set up as a bit of a hardass--she works in a factory, wears boots and thick gloves and is a single mother trying to take care of her son. The opening chapters paint her as kind but not the type for frills and nonsense. However, as soon as she goes out after her runaway son, she seems to become much more timid and dependent on men. A particularly large man shows up while she's hunting for an airship to lift her into the ruins of a city and she practically quakes in her boots. She's carrying a rifle and the guy is clearly not a threat so the fact that Priest seemed to think that her heroine should react in this way is troubling.

Then there are the African and Chinese people--whom the novel refers to primarily as "Negros" and "Chinamen". Granted, this is set in the 19th century and African-American and Chinese-American are a little anachronistic but these characters seem to serve primarily as set pieces on the stage for the "real" (White) characters. Case in point: on one of the airships, one of the "Chinamen" on the crew is named Fang and he is minus one tongue. Having just reread J.M. Coetzee's Foe, I am probably hypersensitive to the idea of the orally-castrated "other" but it seemed to me that this characterization was really only acceptable if Fang's silence turned out to be relevant to the plot. Otherwise, it just seems like perpetuating the silence when you could have just as easily shaken things up and made him the captain and had a white character without a tongue instead--steampunk is, after all, a revision of history. As far as I can recall, Fang's missing tongue was never made relevant, which makes it more "exotic" set dressing instead of challenging any of the stereotypes of the time.

I'm interested in seeing the transformation of the book into a film, hopefully it'll resolve some of the issues I had with the novel.

Updates and Lies

I was apparently lying in my last post about never getting a Kindle because a few weeks later I broke down and bought a Kindle Touch. And it's beautiful. So I guess I wasn't lying when I said the physical appearance of my reading material matters--I definitely judge books by their covers (and their weight, and size, and words per page, and page thickness, and paper quality...). In order to mitigate my betrayal of the standard non-digital codex format, I opted for the highly nostalgic kindle cover:
I read the remaining two Hunger Games books on my Kindle for free through the Amazon Prime Lending Library (woo!) and though they did not really live up to the promise of the first, I was at least able to set the type size to my liking with a few taps on my Kindle. Three cheers for the future!