Written by: Scott Westerfeld
Illustrated by: Keith Thompson
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Simon Pulse
October 2009, $19.99
Genre: Fiction/Steampunk/Alternate History/Young Adult
“Choose your weapon: Beastie or Clanker.
Alek is a prince without a throne. On the run from his own people, he has only a fighting machine and a small band of men.
Deryn is a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She must fight for her cause – and protect her secret – at all costs.
Alek and Deryn are thrown together aboard the mighty ship Leviathan. Though fighting side by side, their worlds are far apart; British fabricated beasts versus German steam-powered war machines. They are enemies with everything to lose, yet somehow they are destined to be together.”
Steampunk is an interesting genre. Its creative. Its fun. So when Finn announced that Leviathan was the next book in our YA book club, I was happy to read it. I have heard good things about Westerfeld with his Uglies series, but this was the first time that I have read anything of his.
Aleksander, son of the Austrian archduke and his wife Sophie, has lived a quiet life until one evening changes everything. It’s 1914 and Alek’s parents have been assassinated. The Great War has begun and nothing will be the same for Alek. They haven’t been the same for Deryn either who has wanted to be in the air since she could remember. Of course she has to disguise herself as a boy in order for that to happen. Now their lives will intersect. Welcome to the world of Leviathan.
Things I loved: I love the world that has been created. On one side of the war you have the Germans aka as the Clankers whose society has been built around their tech and machines. Think Battletech or Mechwars without going full on robot. On the other side you have the British and their allies aka as the Darwinists who have relied on their biotech and genetic creations. For example Leviathan, the third character in this book as far as I am concerned, is an enormous sentient flying whale that is not only crewed but kept aloft by hydrogen bacteria (essentially a living zeppelin). Alek and Deryn have lived on either side of this clanker vs beasties world and it is interesting to see their worlds collide especially considering that each view the other with quite a few questions. I love that difference in not only culture but the way that they fight wars. I tend to be more on the Darwinist side as I love Leviathan, a giant whale that is sentient but still acts like a zeppelin of sorts. Not only that but I loved the bats. I mean yes, because they are bats, but the hailstorm of iron is both gross and completely awesome. So yes I am definitely more of a fan of the beasties than the clankers. Both of these worlds, by the way, are amazingly illustrated by Mr. Thompson.
I think it is these things that make Leviathan great. For example Alek’s camp has basically a small human powered AT-ST from Return of the Jedi. Deryn’s world has tiger hybrids and elephant hybrids that are beats of burden, talking lizards who are basically mynah birds and jellyfish like hot air balloons. How can you not love a book that lovingly describes Leviathan thus, “The Leviathan’s body was made from the life threads of a whale, but a hundred other species were tangled into its design, countless creatures fitting together like the gears of a stopwatch. . . . The motivator engines changed pitch, nudging the creature’s nose up. The airbeast obeyed, cilia along its flanks undulating like a sea of grass in the wind — a host of tiny oars rowing backward, slowing the Leviathan almost to a halt. The huge shape drifted slowly overhead, blotting out the sky.”
The book splits the narrative between Alek and Deryn and their own separate stories until eventually they meet with one another. I like this. Not only are we getting viewpoints of Clanker vs Beastie, but of nobility vs working class, male vs female and Allied vs Central Powers. That in itself is wonderful. It makes you wonder who really would have won World War I had it ultimately been beastie vs machine. Its a nice alternate history to ponder and one that I expect Westerfeld explores in the next two books.
I also really loved the illustrations by Thompson. Not only was it wonderful to see all of the beasties and machines presented visually, but it reminded me of the books I used to read at my grandmothers where every couple of chapters I got a pretty picture.
I really wanted to like Deryn and Alek a bit more than I did, especially when they are finally brought together. But I found myself enjoying things like Leviathan itself, Deryn’s mysterious boffin passenger and Alek’s fencing master more than our heroic couple. Granted Deryn and Alek do have their moments. I found it amusing when Deryn purposefully leaves her door open and puts shaving cream on half of her face as if she had just shaved just to keep up her ruse. How she is going to explain being cranky and worse for wear one week a month, not sure. Which of course brings me to....
Things I didn't love so much: The book read much younger than I expected. It was almost more Harry Potter steampunk than the young adult novel I thought I was going to be reading especially when my hero and heroine are 15-16 years old. Though Alek and Deryn are supposed to be teenagers they both act and speak much younger which is a bit disappointing. The characters are a bit uneven as well. Alek was a bart, spoiled and annoying whereas Deryn was interesting. However, about half way through the book Deryn stagnates as a character while Alek actually grows as a character. Eventually you know that these two are supposed to fall in love, but its hard to believe when I want to see them both as 13 year olds rather than teenagers.
Despite loving the cover art inside, I really didn’t like the cover art largely due to an odd bit of coloring that makes Alek look like he has a mutant brow. Suddenly he is a demon teen rather than the hero of the story. I know you’re looking at it right now. It looks weird. But I do love all the cogs and wheels and other steampunkery on the cover though.
And finally, I am really not in love with the slang. If I have to hear ‘barking’, ‘clart’ one more time, I think I am going to hurl a bat at Westerfeld and then scare it so there is a rain of iron. I heard it was actually authentic slang to the time period, but it was extremely distracting. It didn't feel natural. It was not cute. I was mostly just annoyed which is sad. I am sure that 200 years from now the slang we use currently will seem just as off-putting as perhaps ‘groovy’. Nah, ‘barking’ was just annoying.
Buy or Borrow: For the second book in a row, the world building is great as are the illustrations, but it reads much younger than you would expect. However, I am curious to see what is in Nora’s eggs and see how Westerfeld will finish this trilogy. In the end I am actually going to say buy. I think most people would quite enjoy it. Though there are some better steampunk stuff out there for older adults.
Part of: Series/Trilogy
Book One: Leviathan
Book Two: Behemoth
Book Three: Goliath (September 2011)
Also Recommended: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and lets face it Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne because well...Nemo.
3 out of 4 happy bibliosnark bookmarks