I realized, reading through this year's Hugo nominated novels, that I hold books to different standards depending on the context. If I had merely picked up Boneshaker because several friends told me it was a really fun read (which they did), I think I would have enjoyed it a lot. However, I really read it because it's on the Hugo ballot. In that context, I found it wanting. This says much more about me and what I want the Hugo award to mean than it says about the book. But I just wanted to put my mild disappointment with Boneshaker in context.
Boneshaker is a steampunk, alternate history adventure novel. While I've been known to enjoy all of those sub-genres and types at various times, Cherie Priest's novel didn't quite capture me. It is a fun adventure story, but I found it easy to wander away from. Also, there was a lack of conceptual rigor that probably only bothered me because of the Hugo thing.
The basic plot is: Mom has son, Mom loses son, Mom gets son again. However, in this case Mom (Briar Wilkes) has to navigate an 1880's era Seattle that has been surrounded by 200 foot high walls to contain the zombifying gas released when her former husband ran a huge mining machine underneath the banking district of Seattle. The Civil War is still going on and has apparently spurred zeppelin development, and there are air pirates with captured Confederate zeppelins who hover over the city, sucking up the zombifying gas and making street drugs from it. (I understand that one of these pirate zeppelins is the subject of Boneshaker's soon-to-be-published sequel, Clementine.) Luckily, Briar's father had been a good law man who died while releasing prisoners from the city jail so that they wouldn't succumb to the horrible gas, so that earns her some cred with the criminal under- (or over-) world.
She has to get into Seattle because her 15-year-old son Zeke is on a quest to get to their old house in Seattle and prove that his father, of the disastrous mining machine, was innocent. He takes a tunnel into the city, but a convenient earthquake promptly seals the tunnel, prolonging both his stay in the city and his mother's search for him. On their separate journeys they meet many interesting characters: deserted soldiers, a steampunk Batman-type, an evil genius bad guy, a woman with a mechanical arm, etc. The way the novel filters pulp adventure archetypes through a steampunk aesthetic is one of my favorite parts of the book. The resolution of the story is not that Briar and Zeke will find each other and survive; that's pretty much a given from the story structure. Instead, it comes down to the revelation of what Briar has been hiding about the past--revelations of the secrets that Zeke journeyed all that way to uncover.
It's all in good fun. But the major characters didn't fully engage my interest, especially to the extent that they sometimes seemed drawn from central casting. And the most interesting of the secondary characters seemed either insufficiently fleshed out, or their storylines were dropped when no longer needed (I was especially disappointed not to learn the ultimate fate of the steampunk Batman dude). And sometimes the narrative undercuts its own tension-building by its overly ornate diction.
This is the second of this year's crop of Hugo nominees to harken back to the American Civil War, the other being Julian Comstock. I'm a bit sad to see that; I want my Hugo novels to be forward-looking and conceptually weighty, it turns out. Of course, everyone's got their own internal criteria for comparing all the apples, oranges, and zebras that get on the Hugo ballots. And they're all valid! Prose style, characterization, concepts, world-building, entertainment, etc. For instance, I keep debating the value of prose style (which would incline me to vote for Julian Comstock) vs. forward-looking idea-driven sf (which would lean me over towards Windup Girl). Through no fault of its own, Boneshaker doesn't fall into my Hugo sweet spot. Even its alternate history world-building feels slight--a series of justifications for all the cool imagery. Certainly I didn't read anything in it that felt to me like a credible reason to have the Civil War lasting more than 15 years.
So generally I found this to be a fun read with some cool imagery and adventures. But I think my expectations were a) set quite high by some of the other reviews of it I'd read; and b) set very differently from what it was trying to do, since I read it as a Hugo nominee instead of just another novel. I'd say that for what it is trying to do (fun steampunk adventure), it succeeds fairly well.