Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest

Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest is a modern day urban fantasy with deep roots going back to the time of the Civil War. That fact is interesting because Priest's latest work, Boneshaker, Dreadnought, and Clementine, are all set in an alternate history where the American Civil War continued well beyond its 4 years. That's more of an aside, however, as Four and Twenty Blackbirds does not take place in the same world as those other novels.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds is a ghost story. The lead character, Eden Moore, is haunted by three women who died under unknown circumstances. Eden suspects the three have something to do with her own mysterious origins, and so she sets out to discover where she comes from. The story is really that: Eden follows one clue after another, reacquainting herself with long lost relatives while staying ahead of an odd cousin who wants nothing more than to end her life.

I would classify the story as urban fantasy. Eden is a fairly typical, spunky heroine of the genre. Other characters are interesting and colorful. The ghosts are mysterious, but I would have liked to have seen more of them. Their own origin is not revealed until the climatic ending.

The term "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" is not new. Its origin seems to lie in the nursery rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence, which begins,

Sing a song of sixpence,

A pocket full of rye.

Four and twenty blackbirds,

Baked in a pie.

Both Mercedes Lackey and Neil Gaiman contributed works that bear the name. There's even a Brooklyn pie shop that uses the name.

Those facts aside, Four and Twenty Blackbirds was an enjoyable read, though it was lacking a certain oomph.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest is my first foray into the steampunk genre and the first book I'd ever read by Priest. While I have a few gripes, I was not disappointed. Boneshaker is a fun adventure, full of zombies (in this alternate history tale they're called 'rotters'), airships, mad scientists, and flawed heroes.

Boneshaker was selected as one of Amazon's Best Books of 2009 as well as a Publisher's Weekly Best Books of 2009. It is also a Barnes & Noble November Feature Book. In addition, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association awarded Boneshaker a PNBA Book Award for 2010.

The background we are given for the story is this: While the American Civil War rages on, prospectors flock to the Pacific Northwest pursuing rumors of gold discovered in the frozen Klondike. In an effort to reach this gold, an inventor, Dr. Leviticus Blue, is commissioned to create the Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine, or Boneshaker for short. But, on its maiden test run, the Boneshaker goes out of control, devastating downtown Seattle and releasing a noxious vein of Blight gas that turns any who breathe it into mindless flesh-eaters. In the mishap, Dr. Blue goes missing and is presumed dead, leaving his pregnant widow, Briar Blue, to fend for herself. Much of central Seattle is abandoned, left to the rotters as a hundred foot wall is built around the city center in order to contain them.

Briar escapes to the outside, making a home for herself and her soon-to-be born son, Ezekiel. Life is not easy for either of them, and as we enter the story sixteen years after the Boneshaker incident, we find Briar working a difficult industrial job, scorned by most, and with no friends but her own son. Zeke, who has grown up without a father and, worse, grown up listening to the accusations that float along with the mysterious tale of what happened that fateful day, nevertheless maintains faith that the incident was an accident, and that his father had nothing nefarious in mind when he inadvertently released the Blight gas into the city. So begins the story, with Zeke sneaking beneath the wall and into the Blight-infested Seattle, intent on finding evidence his father is innocent of people's many suspicions. Briar, upon learning of her son's dangerous adventure, has no choice but to follow.

Boneshaker is full of goodness: zombies, airships, polarized goggles (whose purpose is to detect Blight gas), gas masks, steampunk weapons (what better way to kick rotter ass?), a particularly mad and devious scientist/inventor, and a strong female lead who doesn't know when to quit. The story is fairly straightforward: boy gets himself into trouble, mom has to bail him out. Along the way, adventure ensues as one tries to find the other. Things get a bit more complicated when they each find that the city has not been abandoned completely, and that there is, in fact, a whole society of sorts who still call Seattle home. Not all of these denizens are friendly, either.

While I did find Boneshaker enjoyable, don't expect a riveting page turner. There's little real suspense, and while the Boneshaker mystery hangs over the story right up until the end, the nicely done twist in those last few pages comes quick. The remainder of the story is basically Briar searching the city for Zeke, while Zeke initially is seeking his parents' old house and clues as to what really happened to his father.

The rotters are always there, and they force certain actions by the characters, but they're never really a huge threat. Yes, our heroes must run from them and, a handful of times, fight them off, but no damage is ever really done. If you're wary of zombie fiction because of the flesh-eating characteristic, fear not: No flesh is eaten in this book.

I do have one gripe in particular about the plot. Zeke uses an old abandoned sewer tunnel to get underneath the wall. No problem there. But when Briar traces his steps and attempts to enter the city the same way… Look out! Earthquake! And, with that, the sewer tunnel is blocked, forcing Briar to seek other options. In my opinion, this was a poorly chosen, ill-timed plot device, and a fairly unbelievable coincidence.

I will say this about Boneshaker, though: It's a fun read. There's enough going on with the gas masks and the inventions and a cast of seedy, not-sure-who's-side-they're-on characters that I didn't put the book down for long. The ending, too, has a bit of a twist, with Zeke's question about his father answered once and for all. Boneshaker is a fun read and, even better, the first in a series so you’ve got plenty more to explore in Priest’s dystopian, alternate history world.