Saturday, January 15, 2011

Boneshaker: Playing for Team (Feminist) Zombie

I can't believe it. I think I've actually switched teams.

In that age old dichotomy poised by Holly Black and Justin Larabelestier in their edited collection Zombies vs. Unicorns, (ie. which are better, zombies or unicorns?), it seemed the whole world could be divided into Team Zombie or Team Unicorn. And I was sure, SURE, that I was on the team with the pretty one-horned horsies.

Exhibit A: I was a bit of a girly girl. Never a horsie girl. But a bookish, fairy and rainbow loving, team unicorn playing kind of a girl. (And back then, My Little Pony, Rainbow Brite and dolls of that ilk weren't all sexy-ed up like they are today - check out this blog on the phenomenon at Ms.Magazine)

Exhibit B: By the time I figured out there were no unicorns, I transferred my love of unicorns to dolphins. (I blame Madeline L'Engle and her brilliant final book of the Austin Family series, A Ring of Endless Light - I mean, what tween can resist a heroine who has telepathy with dolphins?) The Freudians in the room would probably say I simply transferred my fascination with one phallic object (one horned creature only tamed by virgins -- hello?) with another (smooth fish that fictional girls also ride? Double Hello?).

Exhibit C: Even after two decades of my 'all serious books all the time phase' - my return to YA was still marked by fantasies of the gossamer-winged, rather than limb-amputating variety. The LOTR series is one of my all time faves, and even my recent fantasy faves are of that ilk (for instance, I adore Diana Peterfreund's books about Unicorn-slaying warrior girls, Rampant and Ascendant - Peterfreund imagines unicorns as bloodthirsty and dangerous, yes, but hey, they're still books about unicorns being fierce. Just fierce in the literal sense, not the Tyra Banks-ian sense.)

And so, when my dear friend J recommended Boneshaker by Cherie Priest for our book club, I wasn't sure I'd be down for the cyber-steampunk-zombie-pirate adventure. Not sure at all. My only association with steampunk, honestly, was that awful awful movie with Will Smith and Kevin Kline, Wild Wild West, and while I'd heard that it was an up and coming genre, that movie had just set me up to think of it as, well, silly, really. And if not silly, at least dirty. And if I've not made absolutely clear from exhibit A, B, and C above, I'm not really a girl who's down with dirt on my face and grime on my fingernails. (Side note: If you need a bit of a primer on steampunk, here's a recent Christian Science Monitor article calling it 'the new goth.')

For those who haven't read Priest's novel, here's a thumbnail. It's civil-war era Seattle, only the city has been walled off because of a giant drilling machine called a "boneshaker" which has unleashed a deadly (possibly volcanic) yellow gas from under the earth. Oh, yea, and this gas not only kills people, it does so after turning them into brain and flesh eating zombies. Briar Wilkes and her son live outside the walls, in The Outskirts, a dismal, acid-rain-infested, bleak place. When Zeke goes into the dangerous city alone to discover more about his family's past, it's up to Briar to make like a maternal Xena and save him, all the while kicking some serious zombie butt.

I gotta say, I loved the book. My one major hesitation was Priest's seemingly unexamined use of the term "Chinaman" over and over and over (and the word "Negro" once). I say seemingly unexamined because there were moments I could see she was trying to examine and challenge the characters' racism, and draw attention to race relations at the time, she didn't go far enough in that challenge to warrant her use of the jarring word. The Chinese characters remained, in fact, mostly caricatures, since they are present, but not granted MC status (see my previous rant on people of color as support staff/BFFs rather than main characters).

But the dirt, the acid rain, the Blight infested air, the post-apocalyptic feel, the flesh eating 'rotters' -- all things I was sure would turn me off, actually drew me in. And, issues of race notwithstanding, the reason I think they did was simple: the strong female protagonist and Priest's ability to portray strong female characters.

What other book have you ever read where a 35 year old, factory working mother is the heroine? The gun-toting, bad-ass heroine who is brave enough to try and rescue her 15year old son into a walled-off, zombie-filled city? The only comparison I could think of was Linda Hamilton's character Sarah Connor in the Terminator films. But even then, despite Hamilton's really remarkable biceps, Aah-nold kind of still steals the show, right? Not so in Boneshaker. Briar is the central heroic figure, her son Zeke the person in need of rescue. Yes, there are multiple male characters who assist Briar in her quest to find her son, but there are also two other strong female characters - a one-armed (and even that, mechanical) sling-shot shooting bar owner named Lucy and an elderly, tough as nails but ultimately motherly Native American woman named The Princess. There is a scene near the end where all three women appear - and they aren't fighting each other, one doesn't turn out to be a villainess, and they certainly aren't talking about men (so it passes the Bechdel test). I loved being able to see three strong women portrayed like that - in one single scene.  

I still love stories with gossamer-winged creatures who flit about, committing magic acts of love, but I'm realizing I can also hang with some demented flesh-eating folks as well. Especially when said brain-a-tarians aren't frightening prom queens and otherwise following the 'let's dismember female characters' sexist patterns of most horror movies. Rather, I'm down with zombies as long as they're being hunted, stepped on, and otherwise crushed by some female warrior awesomeness.

So yea, with a few rainbow colored caveats, I may actually be willing to play for Team Zombie once in a while. Or, perhaps I should say Team (Feminist) Zombie.

How about you? Are you Team Zombie or Team Unicorn?


  1. Well that sounds like it's worth a read. Steampunk usually works really, really well for me in books.

    I think I may be team unicorn, if only because zombies freak me out.

  2. I saw your posting at and I felt compelled to read your blog when I read about the genre steampunk zombie pirate novel! What a wild combination. Good review! I need to check this book. :)

  3. Claire - any other recs of steampunk you can make much appreciated since I'm obviously a relative newbie to it! Hopefully these zombies won't freak you out... I'm pretty zombie-wimpy and I could hang with 'em...
    Ann - thanks for visiting, feel free to browse around! Check out the book for sure, it's SOO cinematic I can't imagine that it won't be a movie at some point - it just came out in 2009 so maybe at some point soon...

  4. Put it on reserve at the library. I'll declare a team association when I give the zombies a chance. :)