Pros: world lives and breathes, life inside the destroyed city portrayed well
Cons: motivation of main character inconsistent, doesn't feel like steampunk despite obvious intentions of author
By any objective standard Boneshaker by Cherie Priest is a western steampunk (or cowpunk if you prefer the term). It has a wild, gear-laden machine designed by a mad scientist. It has airships - lots of airships. It takes place in an alternate world shaped by mechanical technology developed in the 19th Century and is very much set in an Old West. It's shaped by the gold rush, although no one is panning for gold in the book. There's only one problem - it just feels wrong for steampunk. It is, however, a decent novel. I enjoyed reading it.
It's been sixteen years since the Boneshaker destroyed most of Seattle and the former residents are either long dead, long turned into zombie-like creatures by the gas residue of the crash, long gone, or settled around the outskirts of the former city barely getting by in menial factory jobs. Briar Wilkes is of the last group, working 10 and 15 hour shifts, barely home to feed her fifteen year old son, barely able to eke out enough to pay the bills (with some creative juggling). Widow of the crazy man who destroyed Seattle (although some want to believe the Russians bribed him into testing it out early) and daughter of the lawman who died while letting the criminals out before they got trapped inside the city walls (becoming both hero and pariah in one fell swoop, not that he got any of the blame or glory), Briar bears the legacy of both of her relatives badly. She loves her son but can barely find the energy to peep into his room, let alone do his laundry. Then one day he disappears into Seattle looking to exonerate his daddy and Briar find out just how much grit and determination she has left. Following him inside (by jumping off the side of an airship), she has to avoid the zombies, figure out who really wants to help her and who is just in it for themselves, and just what it is the mysterious mad scientist now running much of the underground wants from her. Can she find her son Zeke and get them both out alive? Just what will Zeke discover about his father? Who is the mad scientist and how did he come into power? You'll have to read Boneshaker to find out.
Briar is an interesting character. Bent into submission by the difficult life forced on her by the men of her past, Briar seems hard and disinterested in everything (including her son) when we meet her. It actually feels out of character for her to go after her son when he runs away into Seattle, but there's some sense that guilt is driving her actions which works a bit more than love or even responsibility would in this case. As things progress Briar is portrayed as a loving mother who doesn't really know how to express those feelings. I could almost buy it. Don't get me wrong - I liked Briar. I just don't think her motivations were set up very well.
If you disregard that there's no real impetus for Briar to go chasing after her son or to be so determined to save his behind, her actual journey into the city is interesting and well portrayed. The book splits time between her search and Zeke's adventure inside and together the two halves do give a very nice sense of what life is like for those who stayed behind - or chose to make their homes inside after the city was destroyed. The city and its inhabitants feel real, but they also feel like the inhabitants of any other underground or displaced society. The world lives and breathes, but it doesn't feel special or different in any way.
I think the reason the book doesn't feel like steampunk is that neither Briar nor Zeke is a gadgeteer or airship captain or even stowaway mad for flight. The steampunk elements are not central to the lives of the central characters (except in how past events shaped the world they live in) so they feel somewhat superfluous and secondary. Instead, the book feels like a Western-based adventure fantasy, sort of like a traditional Western with some alterations to actual history plus some zombie-like creatures wandering around to play the role of generic bad guys. It's a perfectly decent Western and folks who enjoy or are in the mood for historic adventure fantasy should like this book. You do come to feel like you know Briar by the end and she's not a bad person to know. The world is enjoyable in a generic sort of way and you do feel immersed in it. If that appeals, give Boneshaker a try. If you're looking for full on steampunk look elsewhere.