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Originally published Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Lit Life

Seattle author Cherie Priest is high priestess of 'steampunk'

"Steampunk" explained — by one of the top practitioners of the form, Seattle author Cherie Priest. Her novel "Boneshaker" is billed as a "steampunk zombie-airship adventure."

Seattle Times book editor

Lit life |

The cover art of Seattle author Cherie Priest's novel "Boneshaker" grabbed me when it came over the transom — the sepia-tinged visage of a woman wearing golden goggles, scanning a sky filled with antique flying machines. "A steampunk zombie-airship adventure of rollicking pace and sweeping proportions," said the cover blurb.

Steampunk, I thought for the twentieth time. What's that? This month Priest won a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award for "Boneshaker" (published by Tor). So I called her up to find out.

Priest, 34, is a well-spoken Capitol Hill resident whose idea of fun is a stroll in Seattle's Lakeview Cemetery, gathering 19th-century names for her characters. She has spent time and thought constructing the internal logic of the steampunk world of "Boneshaker."

"Steampunk is a style, of books, of clothes, of video games and movies, that draws its inspiration from old science fiction stories of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Mary Shelley," she said, "set in a place and time where steam is the dominant form of high technology. It's a retro futurism."

On her Web site, Priest writes that steampunk is "a reaction to the school of design that says all tech must look flat and shiny and inscrutable; it's a rebuttal of disposable culture and wasteful consumption."

"An iMac or an iPhone is pretty and seamless and blank," she says. "It's an intensely amazing thing, but if it breaks, how many people know how to fix one?"

The recent Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. is steampunk-infused — steam, smoke and fog; wondrous contraptions; bespoke tweed suits. Other steampunk book titles you might recognize: "Leviathan," by Scott Westerfeld and "The Affinity Bridge," by George Man.

The "Boneshaker" of the title of Priest's book is a steam drill created by a 19th-century Seattle inventor, designed to crack Alaskan ice to get to the gold underneath. Things go bad — very bad. The drill demolishes the foundations of the city, releasing a toxic gas that, if it doesn't kill you, makes you a zombie. Of course, a very brave and clueless young man ventures into the city, crawling with outlaws and the undead, on a mission of righteous justice, and it's up to his mom (that redoubtable woman with the goggles) to rescue him.

Reading this book, I recalled early 20th-century photos of the Denny Regrade, when engineers completely demolished a hill and a neighborhood. I thought of the Underground tour. So, apparently, did Priest: "I took it so many times, they offered me a job."

In Seattle, the pop culture wave of steampunk is, er, hot. An annual autumn steampunk convention called STEAMCON was locally organized. Priest says organizers "thought they would have 800 or 900 people. They stopped admitting people at 1,400; they had to turn people away."

I think I was born 30 years too soon for steampunk, but I get it. Machinery you can understand. Cool Victorian threads. And villains cloaked in steam, lots of steam.

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For more information on steampunk and Cherie Priest, go to theclockworkcentury.com.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at www.king.org/pages/

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