Cherie Priest, proclaims the cover of The Inexplicables, is indisputably “the Queen of Steampunk.” Judging from the goggle- and gasmask-rich covers of her string of bestselling Clockwork Century novels, that’s as likely true.
Boneshaker, the first in the series, is her most famous work. I loved it, especially Briar Wilkes, the most badass mother in all of steampunk, tenderhearted but tough. The worldbuilding for the series is immensely detailed. Basically an alternative history of 19th century North America, with the Civil War still raging, and airships and submarines the cutting edge of technology. Seattle is Blight-stricken, with zombie-like rotters roaming the streets and poisonous gases choking the walled-up ruins of the city. The Inexplicables is Priest’s first novel to return to Seattle, focusing on the humans who eke their living producing the drug sap from Blight gas.
We follow the story of Rector “Wreck ‘em” Sherman, an arrogant 18 year old(ish) orphan from the Outskirts of Seattle. Briefly featuring in Boneshaker when he tells Zeke Wilkes how to get across the wall into Seattle, the guilt he feels about this (and his lack of job prospects) drives him to enter Seattle. He’s a sap dealer, but who’s now addicted from sampling his own drugs, and goes to Seattle with the vague idea of working as a seller for Yaozu, the Chinaman who controls the Seattle sap industry. But after a terrifying encounter with a monster on Seattle’s streets, Yaozu tasks him with finding out how the monster entered Seattle and how the rotters are escaping. He’s ably assisted in this adventure by Zeke and Houjin, and the Princess, three of my favourite characters from Boneshaker. They discover more than they bargained for, ending in a climactic set-piece where the monster, revealed to be a sasquach, is captured, and Seattle’s streets erupt in battle.
The story is admittedly simple, pulpy even, but its fast-paced and satisfying, with Rector developing as a character in how he deals with his sap addiction. Priest’s writing is immersive and immensely detailed. I was itching to scratch the back of my own neck when she described Rector’s discomfort at wearing his claustrophobic, chafing, gas-mask. The dialogue between the three boys – cocky Rector, earnest Zeke, and scathingly clever Houjin – is often funny, always compelling. (Although they do feel like much younger boys than their supposed age.) And the steampunk tech is to die for, particularly Houjin’s own inventions.
Maybe its unfair of me, but I still have to say I didn’t like this book as much as Boneshaker. Perhaps because we’ve been there before, there was little sense of fear on entering Seattle. The dwindled rotter population and the ease with which its denizens defended the city combined to loosen much of the plot’s tension. Even the main story arc about the monster’s identity had the mystery sucked out of it by the Princess’ convenient sighting of a female sasquatch outside the city walls. And on the topic of the Princess, I have to say the 19th century archetypes from which Priest draws her characters can sometimes leave a sour taste in the mouth. The sole Native American character is of course the only one with access to Secret Nature Knowledge, while the Chinese characters are either conniving (like Yaozu) or good at science (like Houjin). And to be honest, a few of the interactions with characters from Boneshaker (e.g. Captain Cly) felt a bit like – or were explicitly – just saying hi to keep fans happy.
Don’t get me wrong. This novel is exciting, it chugs along at a fair pace, with an amusing protagonist, sassy but with his own insecurities – Rector’s relationship with his addiction is actually rather poignant. The steampunk city of Seattle is beautifully realized, and you can’t help but marvel at the sheer industriousness of its citizens. But what I would say is read Boneshaker first, then the Clockwork Century books inbetween, and so leave The Inexplicables as that bonus little pulpy side dish you eat if you still happen to be feeling hungry after the main course (steamed, obviously!).