Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
Highly underwhelming, and a timely reminder of why I find most steampunk to be a stimulus for self-indulgent laziness rather than an effective subgenre of science fiction. There are positive things in this book, but in no small part this was one of those works where such elements deepen my frustration. It's clear that Priest is not without some significant talent, but here it's applied in a book that on the whole is low quality. The strengths lie partly in the opening and the way it plunges in a sense of an exhilarating and distant world, and partly in characterization, which feels fully authentic and with a nice preponderance of detail. I'm particularly found of the little indications of imperfect perception that come across--a character in anxiety overlooks a letter lying in plain sight, and this element is portrayed not as a critical failure but a realistic moment of emotions. Similarly, the main relationship of the piece, a mother-son antagonism and ultimately love, feels fairly well actualized.
The bigger problem, though, is the utter arbitrariness of the plot, setting and pace. The ultimate plot, as it develops with all its gas-created zombies, mad scientists and weird environment is highly contrived, and feels manipulated by the author to produce a situation of episodic conflict with an eventual ostensibly unified story. I have no objection per say to a thoroughly absurd situation--reference the Manual of Detection above--but here it's unattached to real comedy or an effective satire, and the whole tone is far too serious to make the story work. The larger incoherence becomes problematic as the story emerges with no inherent spark or thematic connection beyond the story, the point of the book is to spin its wheels showing a contrived plot and shadowy backstory of a mad scientist, and we're supposed to take this layout at face value.
There's a sense across the novel, first emerging in prominent sparks around page forty and becoming overwhelming by the end, that it features well realized, three-dimensional characters inhabiting a cardboard world. What makes this contrast dispiriting is that it feels over-tailered to a subset of science fiction that wants to see weird nineteenth century mutations and crazy science, and isn't particularly demanding with anything meaningful with these elements. It's a book that sacrifices coherence, ambition and effectiveness as science fiction for the sake of a fun thrill ride. And, at least for my reading, it doesn't achieve that measure of fun in result.
I was partly hampered by my expectations of this book--after hearing exultant reviews it probably gave more disappointment than I would have otherwise felt. Beyond that, since reading it, Boneshaker has been shortlisted for both a Hugo and Nebulas, which I can't help feel represents fandom siding with style over substance to a large degree.
Similar to and better than: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
Similar to and worse than: The Difference Machine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson