Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Ages 12 and up

This is World War I as you have never seen it before. The powers of Europe are not just divided into the Allied and the Central powers, but into Clankers (Germany/Austria-Hungary) and Darwinists (Britain/Russia/France). The Darwinists use the work of (surprise, surprise) Charles Darwin, who has figured out how to manipulate the life threads of creatures to create new and useful fabrications. The Clankers have advanced mechanics creating war machines that rival the Darwinist creations. These opposing sides of science are simply waiting for the chance to prove who is superior. When Austrian Archduke and his wife are assassinated close to the Serbian border the thready peace between the two alliances is shattered. Outcast by his own people because of his mother’s common ancestry, their son, Aleksander is forced to flee from the same people who killed his parents. The young prince is put to the test when the Darwinist airbeast, Leviathan, crashes near his hiding place. Soon, he meets Midshipman Dylan Sharp, a young airman who is not quite the lad that he seems to be. In fact, she is not a lad at all. She is really Deryn, a lass with a love of flying that was instilled in her by her father. She also seems to have inherited a fair bit of talent. With her da gone and her mother forcing corsets and tea parties on her, Deryn disguised herself as a boy and joined the British Air Service. These two find themselves as unlikely allies, the one putting his faith in machines and the other with a love for the fabricated beasties of her country. If they want to survive the oncoming war, then Alek and Deryn are going to have to trust each other. But with all the secrets and prejudices between them, is that even possible?

I am in love with this book (I’m talking deep, abiding Percy Jackson, Lord of the Rings, Cheney Duvall type book-love). This series has elevated Scott Westerfeld to my list of authors who can do no wrong (in my opinion, at least). I enjoyed Leviathan so thoroughly, that I still have that just-read-a-phenomenal-book glow a whole week later. I mean, it has illustrations for crying out loud! How awesome is that? Okay, obviously no book is perfect, but it had so many of the elements that I consider part of a good book. Secret identities, swashbuckling adventures, tutors with massive mustaches and just the barest hint of romance (with promise of more, eventually).

Westerfeld handles the switches in narration between Alek and Deryn beautifully. Sometimes the stories lead into each other and other times you’re left hanging while he moves to the other person (obviously, because they only spend the latter half of the book in each other’s company). Just thinking about all the planning that had to go into writing the two POVs this way gives me a headache. It’s mind-bending… And each voice is distinctive, even though it’s in third person. With Alek, the language used to narrate is a lot more sophisticated, which goes in line with his upper class upbringing. Deryn’s POV is littered with distinctively Scottish slang (even though many of the words seem to be specific to Westerfeld’s world), Air Service jargon and much looser in phrasing. Still smart, but not as…pretentious.

And speaking of slang! If you’ve read my review of either Specials or Extras, you’d know that one of my favorite things about Westerfeld’s writing is the colorful vocabulary that he invents. (Or is it discovers?) It is infectious and it is fun. Deryn’s slang has worked its way into my thought process and I find myself using some of her words in my everyday conversation. It’s kind of humorous to see the looks on people’s faces when I ask them to put away the “barking Honey Mustard sauce” or tell them that their brains are full of “clart”.

All of this is part of the world that Westerfeld creates for Leviathan. I loved how he took the WWI story and then escalated it with such a fantastical idea. It’s larger than life. I mean, the Darwinists were able to turn a barking whale into an airship! With an ecosystem! That’s totally awesome. The time before Deryn and Alek collide and all hell breaks loose, is used to solidify the difference between the mechanical Clanker mindset and the evolutionary Darwinist thinking. He’s also very good at showing the strengths and weaknesses of both. He doesn’t appear to have any bias toward one or the other. He makes the war as much about opposing beliefs as it is about politics.

I had buckets of fun reading this book. My reading list has been full of good books, but not all of them have been fun book. In Leviathan, the premise is fun (and a little crazy), the writing is fun and the characters are fun. Westerfeld has all of his strengths working for him in Leviathan, plus he has Keith Thompson’s distinctive illustrations to bring the world we’re reading about to life. It works wonderfully. This world is SO detail rich that being able to have the visual element is not only exciting, but helpful.

All in all, this is a book I would recommend to anyone, whether or not they are into the steampunk movement. I found it a very good introduction of the genre and it has me aching to delve deeper. But it goes beyond that. This is an excellent example of solid storytelling. Westerfeld builds an alternate universe without developing a case of world-builder syndrome. He creates memorable characters, both major and minor. And he knows exactly how to pace the action. It’s fast, but not so fast that you can’t absorb this alternate world in full detail..

I can’t wait until the final volume of this trilogy is released in September. Of course, I still have to finish my review of the next book Behemoth. That should distract me for one whole…day.

This is a good example of:

  • Character distinct POVs
  • Character building
  • World building
  • Rewriting history
  • First book in a series
  • Pacing

This book is on my recommended reading list.


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