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Book Review: Behemoth


Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

Ages 12 and up

In Leviathan, we were introduced to an alternate version of World War I. One divided not just by politics, but by sciences. There are the Clankers, who excel at mechanical inventions, and the Darwinists, who have figured out how to fabricate animals into tools and weapons. Alek, an exiled Austrian prince and a Clanker, has been hiding his identity as he lives and works on board the Leviathan, a Darwinist airship. Thanks to Alek and his men, the Leviathan has narrowly avoided the German forces and is now headed towards the completion of her mission in the Ottoman Empire. On the airship, we’ve also gotten to know Deryn Sharp, a young girl masquerading as a boy so that she can serve in the British Air Service. The two started out as unlikely allies and have become friends. In Behemoth, their friendship is put to the test though, when Austria joins forces with Germany in the war. And by the growing feelings that Deryn is trying to hide from him. Of course, Alek is oblivious. He still thinks that his friend is a lad. When the Leviathan finally makes it to Istanbul, Alek and two of his men are able to sneak off of the airbeast and disappear in the Turkish city. But the Clanker influence that helps them to hide causes no end of trouble for the Darwinists’ mission. As it becomes clear that diplomacy will fail to keep the Ottomans out of the war, the Darwinists resort to less diplomatic means to maintain the upper hand and Deryn finds herself stranded in Istanbul with no one else to turn to but the prince she should consider an enemy.

You know that great feeling you get while riding a serious coaster like Montu or Kumba? That is  level of mental loop-de-loops I was doing while reading this book. My brain noise focused into one word (well, form of expression anyways): Wheeeeee!!! As much fun as Leviathan was to read, Scott Westerfeld takes it to the next level in Behemoth. (Is anyone else biting their nails waiting for Goliath?) The plot is twistier, the emotions are higher and stakes, oh boy, the stakes just keep on rising.

In Behemoth, we get to see Deryn go through a broader internal struggle. In book one, we kind of toed the water with her character. We learned a little of her past and we saw how she has to hide her true gender from the rest of her crewmates. Her biggest problem was convincing people that she had to shave. And then she falls for the Hapsburg prince who thinks she’s a guy. Whoops. Her feelings for Alek bring about hurdles for her to jump both as a young woman and as a member of the British Air Service. Her desire to be as honest with Alek as he is with her is at odds with her certainty of how he will react if (when *cough cough*) he finds out her secret. At the same time, she struggles to decide how far she can go helping a friend before she betrays her country. From the first chapter, we see her having to confront these issues. Alek is a constant source of confusion, but it’s refreshing, because the confusion he induces is not merely romantic in nature. At every turn she is confronted with choosing which is more important: her friendship with Alek or her feelings/duty/mission/safety. Despite Deryn’s masculine dress and behavior, we get to see that deep down she is still just a fifteen-year-old girl trying to figure out how she fits in the world.

Alek gets to show growth as well. In the first book, his choices were limited. Most of his actions in Leviathan were dictated by someone else. The most he does is sneak off to try and help a downed Darwinist airship (and then get taken prisoner). He’s still a kid used to taking and following orders. But, he fights back in Behemoth. Takes the reins of his own life so to say. Getting specific would give too much away, but it’s nice to see some really solid growth in Alek…and not just the typical “Oh, the other side isn’t so bad” growth that is always seen in stories where protagonists from opposite beliefs/veiwpoints/social status are thrown together. While Westerfeld does grow both Alek and Deryn by softening their preconceived ideas about the other side, he also grows them in other areas, creating a very distinct story arc for both.

All around the board we get to know the characters in Behemoth much better. And as our understanding of Alek, Deryn, Klopp, Volger and Dr. Barlow grows, our knowledge of the world that they live in grows as well. Leviathan was all about, well, the Leviathan. We spent much of the time learning about the airship and the companion airbeast that keeps it afloat. We were up in the air and in Behemoth the reader is grounded (yes, I meant to do that). Westerfeld’s vivid descriptions are now focused on the city of Istanbul and the Clanker machines. It’s only fair, after all. The first book was about the Darwinists, obviously the second would be about the Clankers. I love how he takes history and then warps it a little, throws in some killer plot and description and  makes you want to dig deeper and find out what really happened. He  creates a desire to learn and I love that.

So often, I’ll find that my attention lags in the second book. The first volume will be all new and exciting and then comes volume two. I’ll be honest, reading volume two is not really what I want to do. What I really want to do is read the last book and find out how it all ends. Do they defeat the evil villain (Of course they do)? Does the guy/girl get the girl/guy (Usually)? Do all the characters make it to happily ever after (Sometimes)? Or does the author randomly ruin everything by turning the main man into a tree (No, I’m not still bitter about that book, not at all)? The second book is normally not gripping for me. Behemoth is one exception. Westerfeld does an amazing job of setting up for Goliath while creating a book that could stand on its own. I could totally just walk up to my bookshelf and just decide to read Behemoth at random. You wouldn’t see me doing that with New Moon or Catching Fire. With them I need the build-up of the first volume. But Westerfeld’s use of pacing and storytelling make Behemoth into a masterpiece all by itself.  And of course, it got me revved up for the release of the final volume next month.

This is a good example of:

  • Character distinct POVs
  • Character growth
  • Description
  • A riveting second volume

This book is on my recommended reading list.

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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.



Extras by Scott Westerfeld

Ages 13 and up

Aya Fuse lives in a world dominated by reputation. Either you have face rank or you’re a nobody. An extra. It’s the way society functions after the mind-rain brought on by Tally and her friends. With a face rank around 400,000, Aya is as good as an extra, unlike her older brother who is pushing the top thousand. Inspired by him (or aggravated by him), she’s become a kicker–someone who breaks video stories to the whole world. All her previous stories have been small fish, barely making a dent in her face rank. But she’s found a group of daredevil stunt girls that might just rocket her face rank to the top. Only problem is that these girls actually want to remain anonymous and Aya is forced to become one of them if she wants to pursue her story. And then they discover something bigger than a group of girls doing dangerous tricks. They discover something that has the potential to destroy cities. And the story Aya kicks is one big enough to send her face rank to the double digits. Problem is, with all that attention she’s bound to attract the attention of the people that’s she’s just exposed and they aren’t beyond abducting one girl and her friends to protect their mission.

Remember back in May, when I finished Specials and I said that I wasn’t sure that I like this series because of the way that book ended? Yeah, it took about two weeks to decide if it would even be possible for me to like the book and all I wanted to do was see if Westerfeld fixed it. So there was more than a little trepidation when I picked up Extras. Fool me once and all that. But I am SO glad that I did. Because he did fix it! And he did more than I was expecting. I was hoping for just a little cameo, just Tally dropping in or being mentioned and maybe a little bit about her life three years after the mind rain. Not so, I got a whole half a book of Tally-action, making Extras quite possibly my favorite book in the series (It also is partly responsible for the recent Scott Westerfeld-a-thon in my reading life–that and the fact that I was able to get Leviathan for six bucks). It brought Speicals from possible book-burning material (So far, the only book I’ve ever burned is Wuthering Heights–now that was cathartic) to just one more book in a series that I absolutely adore. Yes, I’m gushing, I know. Now, let’s get down to business (to defeat the Huns…sorry, couldn’t help myself).

It was interesting to see Westerfeld’s society after the mind rain. You get the distinct feeling that it is a society still adjusting to the downfall of the bubblehead era. They are expanding and making new discoveries. Hurrying to make up for the time lost in the pretty-time. The face rank system is what Aya’s own city has come up with to cope with the sudden demands of a society that is no longer mindless and complacent. It’s just one of the clues that labels this city as a futuristic Tokyo (I’m assuming, Tokyo, it could be another prominent Japanese city). There are references to Tally and the pretty-time, echoes of how the world was in the previous three books. It is still an active part of everyone’s memory (her own brother was a pretty for a few months) and a definite influence on the decisions made by Aya and her friends.

Speaking of Aya. I really liked her. She could be little dense, yes, but there’s something about her need to be noticed that just resonates. Westerfeld sums it up beautifully in the first chapter: “It still pretty much sucked, being fifteen.” We’ve all been through it, that span in our teens that we felt uncomfortable and unbeautiful and unpopular (for me it was actually seventeenish, but whatever). And I’d forgotten how well Westerfeld is able to capture that. Aya resonates with the reader because she is SO very fifteen. And kicking stories isn’t something that she does just to gain attention. She does it because she’d good at it and because she enjoys it. And it makes her feel like more than just an awkward teenager. How many of us wouldn’t want to be famous for doing what we loved to do.

I love how the plot of this book becomes so much more than it seems at first. I thought that the whole story was going to be about whether or not she would betray her new friends and kick their story and it ended up not being about that at all. I was pleasantly surprised. There are more layers to this book than there are in a birthday cake. Just when you think you’ve got the whole thing figured out, Westerfeld surprises you with some delicious new ingredient that sweetens the plot. Kept me on my toes.

One of my favorite things about the series actually comes back to bite me in this book though. I’ve always loved Westerfeld’s way with words. How he comes up with new phrases, like “nervous-making” and “brain-missing” (my personal favorite from Extras). However, I feel that he overdoes it a little bit in this book. And perhaps that was just a part of the new society overcompensating…but I started to get tired of all the noun-verb-ing combinations. But thankfully, that didn’t last long once we got into the real action and it was a small distraction.

Like I said earlier, I believe that this is my favorite book in the entire series (that might change when I eventually reread the series, I’ll let you know). Partly because of the way that it wraps everything up. Partly because we get to see Tally picking up the pieces and making something amazing out of what she’s been given. Also, partly because I think this book, gets to be a little more light-hearted. All the evil, overbearing powers have been stopped. There’s no one forcing people to get brain surge (although, that doesn’t stop some people from getting brain surge anyways). We get to experience a society that’s a little different, a little familiar and sometimes more than just a little confused.  For anyone who enjoys YA fiction, and especially if you like the dystopian genre, this series is a must read. And don’t discount Extras just because you think things have moved on. This is a vital piece that finishes off the puzzle and helps turn a trilogy into a masterpiece.

This is a good example of:

  • Creating a society
  • Creating a distinctive vocabulary
  • Character building
  • Plot twist
  • Writing for YA
  • Merging theme and plot

This book is on my recommended reading list.

Book Review: Specials


Specials by Scott Westerfeld

Ages 13 and up

In Uglies, we met Tally Youngblood, a young girl who was counting down the days until she could be made “Pretty”. When her best friend, Shay runs away Tally is forced to follow her to the Smoke–a group rebelling against the city’s pretty-operation. There she learns that being pretty is not all that it seems to be. In Pretties, Tally has become pretty herself in order to reverse the operation that Shay never wanted. There, she meets Zane, a new pretty who is trying to break free of the mind-numbing personality change as well. Together, they manage to break free of the city and find the remnant of the Smoke. But they are captured once again.

In Specials, Tally has been surgically altered against her will for a second time. But this time, instead of making her complacent, the operation was to turn her into a hardened, “clear”-minded fighting machine. When her ex-boyfriend David and a group of Smokies crash a bash in the ugly dorms and kidnap a member from Tally’s new group, the Cutters, she and Shay must come up with a plan to get him back. And take down the New Smoke. This plan involves Zane, still recovering from the brain-damage inflicted by the “cure”. As Tally follows him, trying to locate the Smoke’s new base, she finds everything she knows being challenged once again. With her various lives pulling at her, Tally must rediscover who she is beneath it all. Because that has never changed.

I am of two minds with this book. On the one hand, I loved it. Loved the series. Couldn’t get enough of it. It was odd finally getting to the “last” book after several years of putting it aside for other things in life (And yes, technically it is the last book in the trilogy. But don’t forget, Extras is still out there). But on the other hand, oh the ending made me SO mad. But I’ll get to that when I figure out how to talk about it without giving everything away.

One of my favorite things about these books is that Westerfield so totally immerses you in the world and thoughts of Tally that you end thinking and speaking like Tally and her friends. Seriously, ask my friends. “Nervous-making” was definitely a part of my vocabulary for months after I read the first two books. Westerfield carries that on to the third book. And it works out well. In this book, perhaps more than any other time, Tally’s mind is completely different from the people around her. I find it interesting thinking that perhaps, had Dr. Cable never sent Tally after Shay in book one, she would have happily become a Pretty, but going into the Wild seems to have woken something in Tally that could not be shut down again. As Tally proves in books two and three.

Suspense? Hmmm, I don’t think it would be a proper Uglies book if there wasn’t suspense. If you’ve read the first two, it does seem to start out a little slow, but it picks up quite quickly. You’re right into the action after the first few chapters. If you haven’t read them yet, well, you should, because they are page-turners.

My only problem with this series is the ending. No, I’m not just saying that because Westerfield tricked me into thinking she’d end up with [Spoiler] instead of [Double-spoiler]. No, I’m not saying that because I’m usually right about these things and ended up wrong (which can be quite fun actually, on occasion). I happen to like happy endings. Really happy endings. Like, Disney-type happy endings. Granted, not all books lend themselves to Prince Charming riding off with the (Pick-Your-Princess) on a white horse. And this definitely wasn’t one of them. Obviously, (as was the case with Hunger Games) too much has happened for Tally to pick up the pieces right away and have everything be all sunshine and rainbows. But, for me, I didn’t get to even see that the pieces were picked up eventually. Oh, there’s the promise…but I like cold, hard fact. In epilogue form if necessary. She had started, she was taking steps to becoming whole again, but you don’t get to see that. And yet, I don’t know how that could have been fixed (okay, well, I do, but I didn’t write the series). I mean, at least as the end of HG, we get a brief glimpse at Katniss when she’s kind of put everything back together. Not so with Tally, and that is probably the main reason that I will, eventually, read Extras. Hoping, that I will get some sort of resolution. Just an inkling. Or just a smudgling?

But other than that, I suppose I did like it. You won’t find me singing over it. But it IS good writing and it does have a very good story with some very good observations of society and being who you are. So yes, I would say that you should read it. Because I probably will, again.

This is a good example of:

  • Creating a society
  • Creating a distinctive vocabulary
  • Character building
  • Plot twist
  • Writing for YA
  • Merging theme and plot

This book is on my recommended reading list.

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