Ios book review: Boneshaker, By Cherie Priest

Attack of the Victorian zombies

The term "steampunk" was coined in the 1980s by KW Jeter as a catch-all for the type of novels written by himself, Tim Powers and James Blaylock. The general ingredients of a steampunk novel are an English Victorian setting, advanced (generally steam-powered or clockwork) technology, airships, breathless derring-do and a smattering of magic; the whole package riffing on the likes of H G Wells and Jules Verne.

This sub-genre of science fiction is having something of a resurgence today. And after selling more than 100,000 copies in her native US, and while in the process of being adapted by the revitalised Hammer Films studio, Cherie Priest's 2009 novel Boneshaker has finally received UK publication, with the rest of her Clockwork Century series to follow at a fair lick.

Priest has avoided a cartoon pastiche of Victorian literature, instead carefully constructing her own, alternate, history in a late 19th- century America where the Civil War is still being fought in the East, and set in Seattle, which has just suffered an apocalyptic event. Some years prior to the action, the inventor Leviticus Blue designed a huge earth-moving device. But the machine – the Boneshaker – ran amok, devastating Seattle and releasing from deep in the earth a mysterious gas called the Blight. As if the destruction wasn't bad enough, the Blight turned the dying into flesh-ravenous zombies, and central Seattle has to be walled off, Escape from New York style, and is left to rot.

It is into this fraught environment that Briar Wilkes goes in search of her errant son. She is a remarkable protagonist who might pleasantly surprise – down at heel, in her thirties, with no cleavage on display and no thoughts of romantic entanglements – or anything else save finding her son.

Given the current craze for the shambling undead, Boneshaker could easily have become just another zombie thriller. But while the "rotters", as they are known in Seattle, are an ever-present threat, they're never in danger of intruding into the superb world-building and characterisation. Which means that the thrilling Boneshaker will survive the ebb and flow of fashions and sub-genres within the broad church of science fiction.