Reverse-Engineering the Steampunk Novel with Style: Cherie Priest and Boneshaker


boneshakerboneshakerAs much as I love steampunk, as much as I revel in the aesthetic and ogle the gadgets, there’s always been a little bit of disconnect between the actual subculture and the supporting materials for me. I remember walking around Dragon*Con in 2008, gawking at the costumes, but noting the lack of cohesion. I knew it had to do with more than goggles, gears, lots of leather belts, and brass. But where was it? Nothing I had read or watched had really held up to the aesthetic, but clearly the zeitgeist was ripe for it.

But after meeting Cherie Priest this year at Dragon*Con, I’m definitely excited about steampunk again, especially as a literary genre. Cherie is energetic and lovely, but she’s also extremely smart (she knows more about Daniel Boone than anyone I’ve ever spoken with). Her passion for steampunk is apparent not just in her clothing (which is fabulous) but also in her contributions to the conversation at large and, of course, in her new book, Boneshaker.

Simply put, Boneshaker is about family, zombies, and steampunk technology, set in an alternative version of 1880s Seattle. And in many ways its creation grew out of the author’s own desire to put the pieces of the subculture together. Cherie says, “I wanted a very good reason why I might wear goggles or a gas mask. Basically I tried to reverse-engineer something to account for the things that the tend to attach to it as a sub-genre, because there’s not really a solid base of tropes from which to draw. Right now steampunk has no solid center, only a look–and that’s not enough to give it sticking power. It needs archetypes. It needs icons. It needs a mythology if it’s going to get its legs under it.”

For Cherie, writing Boneshaker wasn’t just about creating a new myth, but also drawing from the past. Those familiar with her other work, including the Eden Moore trilogy, know that the Civil War features prominently in her work, and Boneshaker is no exception. In the book, the Civil War is still raging. “If you go digging around in the archives,” she explains, “you can find amazing patents for war machines that were going to be built if the war had run longer. So I thought, well… what if the war went a lot longer? What would the country look like if everything didn’t wrap up in a little more than four years? And although virtually nothing of the Late Unpleasantness had anything to do with the Pacific Northwest, where the story is set, such long-standing war would still have had an amazing impact on the tech in use all over the continent.”

Beyond the airships and war-machines, however, beats the heart of Boneshaker: family. The book’s heroine, Briar Wilkes, having survived the zombie takeover that claimed most of Seattle, has dedicated her life life to providing for her teenage son Zeke. But when he vanishes over the wall into the zombie-infested center of Seattle, Briar has to take matters into her own hands and, reluctantly, start to make peace with the demons of her past in the process. Briar is every inch a mother, but flawed, too. She finds strength in surprising places and champions on, in spite of the mounting fear and horrors that surround her.

According to Cherie, much of Briar is inspired by icons she looked up to in her youth like Sara Connor, Ellen Ripley, Princess Leia and even Wonder Woman. On Ripley and Alien, she recalls, “It was literally the first time I’d ever seen a woman rescue herself. I didn’t even know you were allowed to do that in a story. Talking with Elizabeth Bear on the subject, we realized we’re the first generation of women writers who were raised with even rudimentary active female spec-fic protagonists. It’s not such an old boys’ game anymore. We didn’t have to figure out that there was room for us; we were shown that there was room for us.”

So it’s no surprise that Briar and Zeke’s story is such an adventure. And it’s refreshing, too. Much of the so-called steampunk literary “canon” is, well, not exactly seat-of-your-pants, shall we say. It’s writing that’s vested in the technological aspects, the historical aspects, and often pays little heed to the characters and fun of the genre. Not so with Boneshaker. Cherie has created a world filled with everything you’d expect in steampunk, and then some, but tempered it with horror, soldered it with love, and reinforced it with high adventure. In a way, it’s steampunk at its most basic–appropriating the past and sewing it together into something new: a new vision–a brighter vision, perhaps, but a darn fine one.

Cherie has put together a website in addition to her own called The Clockwork Century–the setting in which Boneshaker is written. She is also currently blogging for’s Steampunk Month.

Boneshaker is available on Amazon.

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