by Alex Khlopenko
One of the worst books I read this year. I know that rambling about an 11-year-old book is useless, but it begs for proper critique.
Starting with critique of myself. Every single time I fall for expensive marketing efforts (like Ruin of Kings). The fact that it was pushed by Vandermeer and Wheaton combined with positive reviews from mainstream media should’ve been a red flag.
A perfect premise – (A scientist, Russian Alaska, zombies, locked-down city) has been brutally butchered by the absolute lack of writing skill or storytelling craft. Turns out plot doesn’t matter in an action-adventure novel. Character development or even a surface level study? No time for that.
Instead, we get extensive worldbuilding of the utterly uninteresting world that barely resembles any connection to steampunk or gaslight fantasy with some of the dullest dialogue in genre literature. How many pages are wasted on – “go there”, “where are we?”, “I’m the daughter of Maynard”? All of them. Pages after pages are filled with words that don’t mean anything, words that don’t convey any information. They are just there. Why? After finishing the book I still have no idea.
The plot revolves around a mother and a son, who are dealing with the heritage of the two patriarchs of their family – a fair rulebreaker of a grandad, and the mad scientist husband and father. The son wants to clear the reputation of both, while the mother (knowing the truth) tries to protect him from what he doesn’t know. That’s a recipe for a perfect 60s UK kitchen sink drama. Put it in a proper steampunk setting and it could’ve been my favorite novel. But lo and behold, this turned into an exercise in horrible creative decisions.
Structurally the story makes no sense since the chosen Hollywood action film formula doesn’t apply to non-visual mediums. All the long descriptions of a non-steampunk, almost-post-apocalyptic world beg for a talented production designer t come and save the day. But once again – the wrong medium. Beat after beat, jump cut after jump cut, all feel unnatural and unprovoked. The rare eccentric aesthetic details come across as artificial and added as nothing more than an afterthought, just to fit in with the niche requirements.
The half-baked #feminism of the mother character feels paper-thin since she is but a marionette pushed from one corner of the story to another to fulfill her duty as a character without any agency or choice.
The mother-son relationship is non-existent beyond – “I should’ve raised him better” in the first couple of pages of the book, and then endless repetition through the description of the main characters’ thoughts. There is nothing interesting, fresh, or new about this dynamic because there is no dynamic. Every character in Boneshaker, despite running around like rats on cocaine, is as static and slowly rotting as the American electoral politics.
Yeah, about the politics. To make matters worse, Priest negligently pulls off the classic liberal American white woman and ignores the context of the US Civil War, painting as something distant and only mildly annoying to her (or the rest of characters) without even one mention of slavery, emancipation, reconstruction, or any black people throughout the book. This book has no convictions, no lessons or messages, nothin to teach or present. This is a book about nothing. Naturally, there is nothing to care about.
All of the above could be sustained by interesting prose – even the civil war hot take could be interesting if it was written interestingly. But instead, we have the driest kind of Hemingway school of writing, where the prose is absent per se and instead there are four hundred pages of monotonous rambling about things that no one cares about.
This novel reads at best as an unedited Wattpad debut story from someone who once seen mortal engines and the walking dead but couldn’t recall the plot properly. There are tons and tons of steampunk fanfiction worth your time.