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Customer Review

302 of 351 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not sure what book the 5-star reviewers are reading..., February 6, 2010
This review is from: Boneshaker (Paperback)
Now I know by giving 3 stars, many readers will ask "did you hate it?" No, I didn't hate this book, but I must say I was unimpressed by it. Steampunk designs, airships, and can one go wrong? Well, the answer is to make the plot wandering and the characters not that interesting.

I won't offer a summary of the book, because nearly every other reviewer has done the same. I'll start by saying that the synopsis on the back cover is kind of misleading, especially about the part regarding "rewrite history." It's a shame that portion is nowhere to be found in the novel. By that token, I was expecting the characters to come to some certain uncovering of secret history, and also come to some inner realization about themselves. Sadly, they don't. Zeke's request to clear his father's name unfortunately falls into a simple tale of "overthrow the bad guy." And as the story ends, the world they inhabit isn't changed in the slightest between the beginning and the end of the story.

The characters of Briar and Zeke aren't that compelling, either. Their only purpose in the story seems to be transitioning the reader from Plot Point A to B to C--which is *part* of the reason characters exist, but it shouldn't be the main portion of who they are. Why do they do what they do? What drives them? We don't get much internal dialogue or conflict, everything they feel is spoken.

In the same vein, they don't affect change within the story at all; everything seems to happen without them doing anything or contributing to the goings-on, like they're part of the scenery as opposed to full-fledged characters. So if they don't really *do* anything except move around as per the author's directions, then are they even really empathetic at all? And as I mentioned above, if they don't have an impact on the world they inhabit, then what's the point of telling the story about them in the first place?

Then there's the Steampunk aesthetic. And I use the word "aesthetic" because that's what Steampunk is...visual. It's an interesting concept, the "retro-futuristic" vision, but I've yet to see it done effectively. I'll begin the comparison to another "punk" style, cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is more than the visual style that we see or imagine. To quote wikipedia on cyberpunk: "It features advanced science, such as information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order...Cyberpunk plots often center on a conflict among hackers, artificial intelligences, and megacorporations, and tend to be set in a near-future Earth."

The story does have steampunk elements, but they are all visual, and unfortunately don't go beyond that in terms of what they're using the style to *try* to say. What is the author trying to use steampunk to reveal about society, and about ourselves? What morality play is in effect that ONLY steampunk can tell? (And also, what morals are we also to question by using the Steampunk genre?) It's not like "The Difference Engine," wherein the style reaches to the conclusion that the rapid development of technology is a bad thing. Steampunk shouldn't just be there for its own sake, it needs to DO something and serve a deeper purpose than just as what we see.

I would chalk this up to the notion that there is no "originator" steampunk title that "Neuromancer" serves as for cyberpunk, nothing that first sets the frame of reference and "rules" for how that world works. But that's not necessarily a fault with Boneshaker, but it doesn't help its case.

This is by no means a bad book. If you're a sci-fi and/or steampunk afficionado, this is probably for you. It's not laden with a lot of exposition or heavy sci-fi gibberish. While it didn't pull me in and hit me over the head with an Awesome Stick, your experience may vary. It's kind of a popcorn book, or a Saturday afternoon movie. If you're looking for lighter faire, you could do worse than Boneshaker.
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Showing 1-10 of 23 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 8, 2010 10:47:02 PM PST
E says:
I mostly agree with your review, particularly the blandness of the lead characters and the general tendency of chattiness in the novel, rather than showing feelings through thought or action. However, I take issue with this:

"Steampunk shouldn't just be there for its own sake, it needs to DO something and serve a deeper purpose than just as what we see."

But why? Why can't a setting just be a setting--merely window-dressing for the story that unfolds upon its stage?

Many, many books consist of stories that could be arbitrarily set in another time and place without having much bearing on the core events of the narrative. Even the most idea-driven hard sci-fi often boils down to basic themes about the self and relationships that have iterated again and again throughout literature.

We don't criticize period fiction for being set in the context of its author's historical niche. Why then does a setting like steampunk have to serve some greater purpose than being an interesting background?

Besides, the book does incorporate steampunk into the plot in a meaningful way: for example, the means by which Briar enters the walled city, as well as the machines that keep the air inside clean, amongst other things.

I think you might be expecting too much from steampunk itself, as you hinted at. It's less of an ideological genre (like cyberpunk) than it is a stylistic one.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 5, 2010 9:00:23 PM PDT
EB says:
"But why? Why can't a setting just be a setting--merely window-dressing for the story that unfolds upon its stage?"

Because it's a hindrance and a distraction if there's no real story-driven purpose for the aesthetic to be there (or if it is out-of-place or overdone). For example, I was bored to tears by the continuous need for every character to use gas masks. I understand that gas masks and things of that visual style are part of the steampunk genre; don't beat me over the head with it and waste pages...I got it the first time. That's like a Star Wars novel where they're all stuck in a dark cave, and have to walk around with lightsabers turned on all the time. As cool as it may be the first few times, you would get sick of it after a couple hundred pages.

A setting/theme is just as much a part of the story as the characters and their actions. It has to serve *some* purpose for it to be there. The basic critique I was getting to is that nobody has really used Steampunk that well as of yet, so yes, it is "window-dressing" until somebody hits the nail on the head with the theme. So I don't care that the steampunk theme is there en masse--when there's nothing fascinating going on with the plot and/or the characters, and all that's left is shiny objects and gears, it feels like one long sleight-of-hand.

If you have a story set in a heavily gothic atmosphere, but the story needs almost NOTHING gothic to make it work, wouldn't you question why it was set there in the first place? When a novel is advertised as a "steampunk-zombie-airship adventure of rollicking pace and sweeping proportions," I shouldn't ask myself the question "what will the steampunk element add to this story?" and have it unanswered after 414 pages.

A visual style cannot carry a story on its own. It has to set the mood and the background, and come into forefront of the plot only when necessary, not be a launching point for everything that happens and be thrust into the reader's face at every opportunity.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 7, 2010 5:32:53 PM PDT
E says:
You make fair points. I still don't think setting necessarily has to be incorporated strongly into a narrative, because in a lot of classic literature, setting often feels incidental to the character drama at its heart. But I do agree that when a book is advertised based on its setting, as Boneshaker is, it should indeed deliver on that promise.

I also agree about the gas masks being brought up with annoying frequency. This is something her editor should have caught. All the words spent on describing the masks and how uncomfortable they were, over and over again, could have been used to flesh out characters or events that were glossed over, like the final battle.

I don't think Priest was trying to carry the story on the visual style of steampunk, though. Rather, I think she was trying to carry it on the shoulders of her main characters, Briar and Zeke, neither of which were fully fleshed out or particularly compelling.

Posted on Jun 28, 2010 9:51:12 AM PDT
Great summary of Boneshaker. I just recently finished it (took me a few days on and off to get through it...easy read and clearly written but at a good level), and had all the same thoughts as these about the story and characters. It's a nice read and a fun distraction, but I was left wanting something much more. Especially by the end, everything felt cut off and just summarized for the sake to finish the book. It's a story that has a solid foundation but doesn't take off much farther past it. It felt like there was also a good enough core to spread this story out to another book or two (which I would have preferred), and even just another year spent on this one book would have yielded a fuller exploration of characters. But I understand not everyone has the luxury of spending extra time on works like these; if it's ever adapted to a more visual medium they'd have to inject MUCH more. 3.5 stars from me, from someone who's not even much of a zombie or steampunk fan!

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 20, 2010 6:31:44 AM PDT
C. Baker says:
Ha, I am about halfway through and was wondering why this is the "favorite" to win the Hugo. My reaction to the novel is very much the same as yours.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2010 12:58:28 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 20, 2010 12:58:48 PM PDT
Emina Evol says:
Haha, I am halfway through as well, like C. Baker, and I am actually starting to regret buying this. I could have borrowed this from the library first. At this point, there is nothing that begs me to finish it, I have to really try. It's not bad, just a tad bit boring.

BTW, great review.

Posted on Oct 8, 2010 2:53:48 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 8, 2010 2:55:26 PM PDT
Carol says:
I didn't finish the book. I was fresh off the three-volume set of Glass Books of the Dream Eaters and I came to Boneshaker with a very low fund of patience for another book that reads like an unending chase scene. I loved the cover. LOVED it. The book itself never took root in my imagination. I never had to put it down and gaze off into space, awestruck, feeling my thoughts heading in new and promising directions. Now, not all books can do that. It's just what I needed at the time and I didn't find it.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 9, 2010 10:48:13 AM PST
T. Turner says:
I agree. I'm 25% into the book and I still have no idea WHO the main characters are or why I should care. I'm more upset at the author's chunky, obnoxious sentence structure. Too many dialogue tags and repeated words. It reads amateurish. I may or may not finish the book...if I reach the halfway point and am still uninterested in the characters, I'll stop reading it altogether.

Posted on Nov 19, 2010 6:46:49 PM PST
Thank you for this very thought provoking and interesting review. I've been thinking about picking this book up for a while now, and I still think I will. But now I know a bit more of what to expect. I was hoping it would be a steampunk opus that finally explains why steampunk appeals to so many on a deeper than wardrobe level. But it sounds like it might be a light read which is also appealing.

Posted on Nov 20, 2010 1:35:07 PM PST
Thanks, great review and found your comments about steampunk fascinating. Was excited to find this but I think perhaps I'll go for something else now.
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