Monday, January 30, 2012


By Cherie Priest

I didn't like this book.

I didn't hate it either, but there was something that unsettled me about it early on that i couldn't shake.

First off, there is much to love about this book that one wonders how I could dislike it. There are zombies and alternate history and steampunk and a cast of cool characters doing cool things like killing zombies and building overly elaborate gold-digging machines called Boneshaker. There are airships and gas masks and catastrophes of epic proportions. There's a bad guy who wears a mask and invents weird neo-Victorian gadgets and swears he is the father of the main character. There a woman in the book with two mechanical arms, for Pete's Sake! And I still didn't like it. I had a hard time understanding why I wasn't enjoying a book that I would, under almost any other circumstance, love. What gives?

At first, I thought it was historical inaccuracies. I have a tendency to berate novels that stray too far from actual history. But since this story was pure, unadulterated fantasy I was willing to suspend my disbelief quite a bit. It did bother me some that the characters spoke in a late 20th century vernacular rather than the sort of language that would have been used in the 1880s (when the novel was set) but not so much that I wanted to throw the book away. There were zombies after all.

Then I thought it had to do with the fact that this was fantasy. It is a well-known fact that I hate fantasy. Actually, I should really rephrase that slightly inaccurate statement. It's not that I hate the fantasy genre as a whole but rather the sort of fantasy that is set in Middle Earth-y type locals with mystical unicorns and dragons and elves hiding in enchanted groves and loads of mages (I am beating a dead horse with this rant... I apologize). Fantasy of the modern variety is a touch more acceptable to me, especially if it is science fiction (which is, I admit, a kind of fantasy). Steampunk isn't strictly science fiction but it steals from the same collection plate. That sort of familiarity is enough to allow for some forgiveness along the way. Besides, it has zombies.

And it certainly wasn't the story, which rips along at breakneck speed. Who needs complex characters and pace changes when you've got so much Blight-induced rotten flesh within the walled city of Seattle circa 1879 to annihilate. I would have thought the American government would have stepped in, but since Washington Territory is still awaiting the end of the 18-year long Civil War in order to appeal for official statehood, citizens in the Pacific Northwest have to live their lives in a perpetual battle for their lives. And it's not like the Canadians or the Alaskan Russians are going to help, are they? Like I said... the pace is relentless.

The bad guy was a tad predictable, I must admit. He is a James Bond style villain that likes to explain his methodology in painful detail rather than simply disposing of his foes when he has the chance, but in the rand scheme of the novel, he only plays a minor role. Hardly worth mention really, but I wanted another example of something that didn't bother me before I jump into what actually did bother me...

The real problem with this novel is that I truly wished that the author, Cherie Priest, had written it as a screenplay instead.

(How's that for a backhanded compliment?)

This story seemed so much more like a film than a novel. I could actually imagine the way in which a good director might set the tone and mood for specific scenes throughout the novel. By the end, I was actually thinking about specific camera angles and lighting and possible artists to compose a score (is Trent Reznor committed to anything right now?). I have no doubt in my mind that Boneshaker would make a boatload of money among horror, steampunk and zombie film aficionados, but as a book it didn't work for me. It is a particular thing I dislike about a lot of modern novels. Far too many of them (this one included) follow the rough formula of Hollywood movies, including the big smash-em-up explosions and chases that have become the staple third act in literally every single movie to come out over the past decade. I blame John Grisham and Michael Crichton for this, but I'm sure one could trace the origins of this particular curse on literature farther back than that.

I've said it once and I'll say it again: I wish writers would stop actively trying to achieve cross-over success in the more lucrative film and television genres. If a novelist really wants to make those big bucks, go write movies and television. It's not career cancer, you know. Lots of writers do it. Hell, Michael Crichton did it. There's no rule that says a writer has to stick to one oeuvre. Nobody says that. But cross-over success is so rarely successful in terms of artistic integrity. One of the renditions is bound to fail ("The book was so much better than the movie!"). So why does everyone try to milk so much from so little? Why does everything have to come out in two (or often all three) mediums? why can't novels be novels, films be films and television be television. Everything must be adapted from the original novel by... or inspired by the film... or some other such nonsense.

I know... I know... I'm a curmudgeon who doesn't understand the industry (industries). Too bad. I'm here to complain, and complain is what I'm going to do, so sit back and watch me do it...

Is this where globalization takes us? Along with food, fashion and technology, are we seeing the graying of art and culture? Is writing as an art becoming the chain store strip that exists in every city, town, village and hamlet across North America? Bland alternatives that appeal to a wide demographic without actually satisfying any one customer in particular? I'm probably not making much sense outside my own mind, but the gist of is it that a novelist should sit down to write a novel, and only a novel. Do not write with the intention of selling the film rights or the television rights. It affects the telling of the story and in the end, although it may sell to a wider audience, it will ultimately leave most of them feeling like they just ate a Wendy's hamburger even though they ordered the filet mignon.

Sorry Ms. Priest. I know I'm being hard on you. This book doesn't deserve this sort of criticism (it really doesn't) and It's probably not fair. But I couldn't stop reading your book as a movie and that's not right, either. I could not get the non-existent film out of my mind once while reading and therefore I feel obliged to tell the truth about what this book evoked in me: Boneshaker should have been a movie in the first place, and you should have written it. I loved the premise. I loved the plot. I loved so much about this movie... I mean book. I just wish it was in the right medium.


Rebecca said...

I wish you would start a blog for young men and market it to high school librarians to promote to students. Your style of presenting your views, your choice of books, and your positive attitude about literature would help many young men IMHO.

PS I did not like Hater as much as you did, but I loved Adam's work and anyone who appreciates Johnny Got His Gun is a winner in my book. Thanks for your insights.

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

I completely understand where you're coming from, Ryan. The plotting structure of movies have infiltrated books to the point that it's very hard to find a thriller or adventure book that isn't fraught with needless POV jumps, car chases, and immense explosions. Not that any of those things are bad by themselves, it's just that those plot elements are more visually stimulating and when the novel hinges upon them, it makes the novel almost seem like it's trying too hard to be "exciting."

Does that make sense? I hope so. Long of the short, I guess, is: "I agree. Good post."

Ryan said...

Rebecca: If ony I was more organized and was a better marketer. Truth is, I can only handle one blog. Any more and I'd develop vitamin D deficiency. Perhaps I can find a way to market THIS blog instead.

Jonathan: Thanks.

Jenny said...

Ah, what a delightful rant. And about something that bothers me but I've never really been able to put my finger on. Now that you've pointed it out I'm starting to think of all the books that are doing this. What IS the world coming to?

Ryan said...

I think there needs to be a word or term for this phenomenon. My first inclination is: "The Crichton Effect."

(I have no idea why I feel so compelled to blame Michael Crichton, but I do).

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