“Leviathan” by Scott Westerfeld

18 Aug


I picked up an advanced copy of Scott Westerfeld's "Leviathan" at Book Expo back in June and only recently read it. I've never tried a "steampunk" novel before but I figured a Westerfeld book would be a good choice to serve as my introduction. Luckily, I was right!

So what's "steampunk," you ask? Fair question. Wikipedia will gladly give you the full story, but for our purposes here, it's sufficient to imagine the steam era (late 19th / early 20th century) with futuristic sci fi technology. It's a cool mash-up of genres, and being a sci fi geek at heart, I had to give it a try.

"Leviathan" takes place at the dawn of World War I with the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his non-royal wife, Sophie. In our parallel version of history (by the way, Westerfeld rocks a thorough explanation at book's end setting the record straight), the Archduke's murder leaves behind one son, Alek, who is spirited away in the night by a small yet loyal group of his father's men. Because there's a chance Alek can inherit the empire, despite his mom's commoner status, he becomes an instant target for the Germans, Austrians, Serbs, and all sorts of other folks who want to plunge the world into chaos.

One other point — and it's a neat one! — involves the German and Austro-Hungarians' technology. They're known as "Clankers" because they've developed and rely heavily upon awesomely advanced machines. We're not just talking about planes and zeppelins but also enormous, mobile contraptions called stormwalkers, which reminded me of the AT-AT Walkers in "Star Wars."

Ok, so Alek and the gang are escaping via stormwalker to a safe house (er, safe castle) hidden away in the Swiss Alps. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we follow British girl Deryn's story. Disguising herself as Dylan, the brave and street smart Deryn has become a midshipman in her majesty's royal navy. Of course, the navy in this case involves giant, hydrogen-excreting creatures that sail across the sky. See, the Brits are Darwinists (named after Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution). The Darwinists have learned how to separate out "threads of life" (what we know as DNA) and fabricate all manner of exotic beasties, from hydrogen-sniffing dogs to bats that can release metal spikes as weapons. Deryn is deployed to the great airship Leviathan — a massive flying whale! — which is the Darwinists' crowning achievement.

So even from this slight description, you might be able to see what's coming, right? Yup, at some point Alek's Clanker world and Deryn's Darwinist world are going to collide, with all sorts of unexpected results. What works here? First off, the authenticity of the characters. Deryn reminded me of a Jacky Faber type, a tough, good-hearted, adventurous girl living a boy's life and having a grand time doing so. Alek is more reserved, cultured, and stoic, a teen weighed down by the twin burdens of his parents' deaths and his own importance to the emperor. I totally believed each of these characters, and I loved watching their initial, mutual suspicion become a true friendship.

Westerfeld's descriptions of machines and interlocking ecosystems are also wonderfully evocative … and, admittedly, kind of gross, too! What's most important is that we readers can vividly see these otherworldy beings and metal monsters in our own minds. In fact, there were times I felt I could just about smell the hydrogen myself!

"Leviathan" is a great action story, but one populated with characters who feel, talk, and act real. The mixture of technological marvels, world history, fantasy, and loads of adventure is unlike anything I've read before. I also loved how Westerfeld discussed the political maneuverings behind the outbreak of war and the often unwarranted, wholly fear-based wariness that different cultures can have for each other. My only complaint? I had no idea this novel was the first in a series! It's going to be tough waiting another year for the second installment.

"Leviathan" will be out in October, and I'd absolutely recommend it to all readers in middle school and higher. It's completely clean, language-wise, and I think there's a little something here for you regardless of your preferred genre. I hope you'll give it a try when it comes out. Happy reading!

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Posted by on August 18, 2009 in Uncategorized


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