Saturday, 29 January 2011


Cherie Priest

At the start of the Civil War, a Russian mining company commissions a great machine to pave the way from Seattle to Alaska and speed up the gold rush that is beating a path to the frozen north. Inventor Leviticus Blue creates the machine, but on its first test run it malfunctions, decimating Seattle's banking district and uncovering a vein of Blight Gas that turns everyone who breathes it into the living dead. Sixteen years later Briar, Blue's widow, lives in the poor neighborhood outside the wall that s been built around the uninhabitable city. Life is tough with a ruined reputation, but she and her teenage son Ezekiel are surviving until Zeke impetuously decides that he must reclaim his father's name from the clutches of history.

Having cut her teeth on a series of southern gothic ghost stories (the Eden Moore trilogy) Priest here turns her attention towards a steamier, or in this case gassier, genre with fine results.

Briar Wilkes is just about subsisting through punishing manual work on the outside of the high-walled death trap that used to be Seattle. Her life and reputation in tatters following the calamitous actions of her husband Leviticus Blue which had released the Blight Gas onto the city and doomed many of it's inhabitants to a life of poverty and hardship but many more to an unlife as the living dead.

It is from this existence that Briar's (and Blue's) son Zeke wishes to escape and the only way he knows how is by clearing his dead fathers name and that means going into the city.

Briar is a wonderful creation. Her reactions to her son's less than rational excursion and her subsequent travails as she attempts to recover him are so beautifully human and real that one cannot help falling for her. She is a woman remade in her own image, undiminished by the hand she has been dealt and meeting life head on. Zeke on the other hand is too much of a teenaged cliche full of undirected angst and naive bravado.

Life inside (and outside) the city is beautifully sketched and the book is peopled with a fabulous array of characters including dirigible flying sky pirates, sinister gangsters and all the different flavours of human flotsam and jetsam you'd ever be likely to find.

The story isn't perfect, there aren't enough zombies by a long chalk and the final confrontation (between whom I'll not say) is very rushed but it is, in spite of these points, still rather wonderful.

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