On one of my many visits to Scott Westerfeld’s wonderful blog, I came across a mention of the book Boneshaker, a title that he personally praised and recommended to fans of his own Leviathan and steampunk in general. Being a huge fan of Leviathan and anything even remotely steampunk, I naturally wanted to give this book a try.
The book I ended up reading was not the Boneshaker I expected. Literally. The Boneshaker mentioned by Westerfeld is written by Cherie Priest (and has been added to my reading list). The Boneshaker—by Kate Milford—is another novel entirely, but I’m intensely glad that I stumbled upon it.
The Boneshaker is about a young girl named Natalie Minks who is fascinated by all things mechanical, inspired by her dad’s own work as a mechanic. Her main interest lies in the realm of bicycles, however, and her current project with her father involves restoring and improving a Chesterlane Eidolon, a rare form of bicycle built with a hinge in the middle so that the bike can bend if the rider desires it to. An experienced Eidolon rider, that is. At the moment, Natalie struggles with simply getting the thing to stand upright—which is why she is fascinated to see another Eidolon arrive in her small town of Arcane. But something dark surrounds its arrival. It comes with Dr. Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show; this traveling company, with its unusual physicians-slash-entertainers, claims that its sciences can diagnose and cure any ailment, a claim that Natalie and her family don’t quite trust. It doesn’t help, either, that Limberleg himself seems to have an almost magical control over machines, which makes Natalie even more uneasy. After all, the workings of machines are supposed to be, for an experienced mechanic, easy to figure out, but the workings of Limberleg’s machines can hardly be explained.
These elements combine to create a book that is part small-town adventure, part magical realism, part fictionalized rural Americana, and it is easily one of the best books that I’ve read in years.
The Boneshaker has many strengths, but one of its major strengths is simply the world in which it takes place. The setting and characters are both subtly and impressively crafted. Natalie’s appropriately-named hometown of Arcane is saturated with an air of folkloric mystery, but it doesn’t overwhelm the characters or the reader so much that it becomes the most important thing in the story. It is merely a fascinating quirk, the kind possessed by any small town that likes to tell stories about itself in the hopes of livening things up a bit. The characters are quirky, too, though not so quirky that they become too distant from the reader. Natalie certainly has a stronger interest in machines than most girls her age—and really, most girls in general—but even though her interest in machines is largely what defines her identity, she never becomes The Bicycles and Only Bicycles Girl. She is rounded out by a growing willingness to assert herself in situations where she previously wouldn’t and by the experience of problems that no machine can ever solve for her.
Most of the true quirks in the story are found in the members of the Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show, who often seem the physical manifestations of the very sciences that they practice and have unusual names to show for it. Still, even these characters do not become so odd that they couldn’t exist in the world outside the story (until, perhaps, you reach the end of the book, that is).
Also interesting in this story is the importance of storytelling itself to the central narrative. Natalie’s mother has a profound talent for storytelling, and it seems that everything Natalie knows about her hometown—and everything that makes it unique and mysterious—was transmitted by story. This is cleverly in keeping with the folkloric sensibility of the entire novel, which itself evokes a sense of rustic, American nostalgia, passed down from parent to child, storyteller to storyteller-to-be.
The Boneshaker is a rare story, one that possesses several qualities of a classic while, at this point, being barely a year old. A prequel, The Broken Lands, is set to release in Spring of 2012, and I will zip to my local bookstore as soon as it does.