Cherie Priest,
(Tor, 2009)

There are zombies running amuck in Seattle -- but this is not the Seattle we know. The Civil War has run long, in part because Stonewall Jackson survived Chancellorsville and has kept the South from folding. The Klondike gold rush, on the other hand, came early, and the Russians -- eager for an edge in drilling for the valuable ore beneath tons of ice -- contracted with Dr. Leviticus Blue to build a mechanical drill.

But Dr. Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine, upon its maiden test beneath the streets of Seattle in the mid-1860s, ran out of control, undermining buildings, collapsing a portion of the town and releasing a deadly underground gas that not only killed those it came in contact with -- it also resurrected them. Soon, unable to stem the flow of the heavy, slow-moving vapors, the survivors built a massive, towering wall around the afflicted city to contain both the blight gas and the zombies -- or "rotters," as they're called -- within.

Now, 16 years later, Blue's widow -- Briar Wilkes -- lives a hard life in the Outskirts, which have grown up around the wall. Besides the normal level of hardship in the broken community, she also has to deal with the stigma of her late husband and her father, the town sheriff, who died releasing prisoners from the Seattle jail. Was he a hero or a crook? No one seems sure.

Then Briar's son Zeke decides it's time to prove his father's and grandfather's innocence, although he never knew either of them, and he finds a subterranean route into the old, ruined city to seek evidence of their intentions. Within there are zombies, yes, but also unfathomable societies of surviving townsfolk, mysterious gangsters, strange inventions, airships, sky pirates, an oddly familiar scientist and more. As Zeke struggles for his life, Briar follows him into the city on a desperate rescue mission.

Cherie Priest has built quite a world here, an Old West variation on the popular steampunk theme. The separate but inexorably entwined stories of Briar and Zeke are densely packed with suspense and amazement. The menace of the mindless rotters provides a constant undercurrent of tension to the more immediate dangers presented by Dr. Minnericht -- a shadowy figure with a great many secrets and, perhaps, a few answers -- and the ominous yellow clouds of drifting blight gas. Trust me, you will find yourself holding your breath while reading this one -- and again while waiting for the upcoming sequel!

review by
Tom Knapp

17 October 2009

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