One of the three lauded torchbearers of the current steampunk milieu, I follow Cherie Priest on Twitter, and have eagerly listened to a podcasts where she talks about her approach to writing and her history. And yet I approached Boneshaker with ambivalence. I'm not sure why, perhaps it's my own distrust of anything that has popular success? However within the first chapter, with it's sweeping changes to the nineteenth century American landscape, and ample early references to Alaska I was won over, mostly. It was a rocky start, but then something really hooked me.
First for the Steampunk factor:
Techno-Fantasy: 30 Boneshaker is the epitomy of Steampunk tech. Dirigibles, underground digging machines, powered armour, mechanical limbs. It's in there.
Neo-Victorianism: 12 There were structural issues that pulled me out my suspension of disbelief. I really felt like this story could have been told just as easily in a modern, future, or post-apocalyptic setting. There was nothing that made it HAVE to be steampunk. First this book took place in the 1880's. The Seattle of the 1880's was practically a village, what made it the city it is today was the Alaska Gold Rush. The book takes care of that by having the Russians discover gold in Alaska much earlier than it would have. So Seattle is built up much earlier, but it was built exactly like it did get built. I had a hard time getting over that. West Coast cities were just built differently in the 1850's - 70's than they were at the turn of the century. But my minds eye kept going over area I actually know and tripping because they are to familiar as modern not 19th c. features. Now as a defense for the book, I have been told that in the author's forward this was addressed as an intentional artistic decision to give readers a touchstone. Had I read this initially it might have been better disposed to some of these issues.
Retro-Futurism: 28 While thinking about this I began to wonder if Neo-Victorianism and Retro-Futurism cannot be at loggerheads. Many of the more interesting elements were backwards mirrors of the present onto the 19th century. That the civil war had been going on for decades, that there was a rampant drug problem, and that it was fueled by and fueled the government's war machine all were fascinating explorations.
Bonus: 3 Alaska 6 Novel use of Underworld descent.
But the thing that really got me interested in the book was as Briar readied herself to go inside the wall I idly thought... "This feels like Inanna's Descent into the Underworld".
For those not familiar with the Sumerian myth here's a synopsis:
Inanna was a goddess of life and fertility. She desired to go into the underworld to mourn the death of her Brother-in-law. Her sister, the queen of the underworld, didn't want to allow it. Inanna arrayed herself in the 7 trappings of civilization, and went to the underworld anyway.
Her sister had the 7 gates of the underworld closed and Inanna could only pass them after she removed an article of clothing. After the seventh and final gate, she stood naked before her sister who had her killed.
Meanwhile back at home, Inanna's loyal friends offer up prayers and send creatures to save her. They bring her back to life and she returns to the world only to be told that she must send someone back to the underworld in her place. After the suggestions that her most loyal friends, and then her sons will be taken, she settles on her indifferent husband and has him dragged back to the underworld.
At its base, this novel was about a mother with a past who had to face that past and go into the bowels of the earth to recover her son. As I read I wondered if Priest intentionally mirrored Inanna's Decent into the Underworld or perhaps another Underworld myth like Orpheus or Ceres and Prosperina.
Inanna's motivations are different than Briar's. Briar only wants to retrieve her son, but especially with the ever present question of Briar's dead father and husband, Dr. Blue, there is a similarity.
At every step along the way, like Innana, Briar had to leave something important, or have it stripped away, and at the final confrontation her life and sanity were in danger. And when it is over, and time to return from the underworld, the truth about what happened to Dr. Blue is revealed. And Briar leaves him, finally in the underworld.