Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
When Hurricane Sandy hit, I lost power for a few days. I lit a candle and read a book. That book was Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.
During the Civil War, Levi Blue caused a huge amount of devastation to the city. Poison gas started leaking up from the ground. Everyone had to evacuate, and huge walls were built to contain the gas.
Years later, Levi's son, Zeke, decides to enter the city to discover what happened and prove his father's innocence. Levi's wife, Briar, warns Zeke that Levi wasn't innocent and tries to stop her son. When Zeke goes in to the city anyway, Briar tries to follow him in and pull him back out.
It turns out that there is still a small community of people living underneath the ruins of the poisoned city, including a mad scientist continuing Levi's experiments. He matches Levi's description, too. Could Levi have survived, amassing an empire turning the poison gas into drugs?
Although Boneshaker calls itself steampunk (and it is), it's not the usual brand of steampunk. There are airships and one or two fantastical weapons, but there are no robots/automatons/clanks. Other that two weapons, one of which appears near the end of the book, and a mechanical arm, this could have been a standard adventure set during the Civil War. The titular Boneshaker machine is only used during the prologue, but it is mentioned a lot throughout the book.
I actually consider this to be a good point of Boneshaker. I've read a lot of steampunk where the characters run into trouble, and the only way out is yet another Deus ex Machina superweapon that is found and used only in the one scenario. The few fantastical elements in Boneshaker are introduced naturally and are well-integrated into the story.
I also like that, even though the book's cover mentions zombies, the zombies are not overused. They are a byproduct of the real problem in the city: the poisonous gas. The "rotters" as they are called are a nice touch to the dystopian wasteland of a city. They present a challenge to moving around the city rather than a total blockade a la Day of the Dead, which tends to be a plot convenience to keep an entire novel in one room. I don't want to say more to avoid going into spoiler territory.
One negative, though, is that the book feels padded near the end. I did care about the characters and there was plenty of intrigue, by the end of the book, I stopped caring as much.
The other characters are constantly trying to talk Briar into seeing the Doctor, as she is the only person who can definitively say whether or not he is Levi or an impostor. By the time she agrees and finally gets to him, I already knew everything and knew what the entire ending was going to be. I found Zeke's story more interesting because he was journeying through the city, and I was immersed in the world much more in the story while he was traveling. There was less of the same predictable conversation and more exploration. With a little bit of chapter reordering, I think I would have been more interested when he met the Doctor.
There was a higher frequency of contradictory filler paragraphs near the end. These follow a similar formula to, "If she had gone up a floor, she would have found a lantern and had plenty of light. But, she didn't go up a floor. She continued on, still without a lantern." (Not an actual quote from the book)
Everything is exposited in the form of long conversation. There is text describing the way a character feels about a situation, followed by more text of the character stating the same feeling out loud. This may not be that bad of a point, but this and the previous point happened frequently enough that they started jumping out at me, taking me out of the story.
Even with these few negatives, Boneshaker is still worth reading. It's a fun book. It's the literary equivalent of a summer popcorn movie. The setting is interesting and well described, and there are other books by Cherie Priest in the same setting with different characters. The world is interesting enough that I plan to find and read these books, too.