Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review: LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfield

Prince Aleksander, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battletorn war machine and a loyal crew of men.

Deryn Sharp is a commoner, disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She's a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

With World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn's paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.
You know that moment when you finish a book that everyone's been talking about? That moment when you stop and scold yourself for waiting so long? Leviathan gave me another one of those moments to add to my embarrassingly long list.

I do have an excuse, though. All I'd ever heard about Leviathan was that it was a steampunk tale about a girl who disguises herself as a boy. Maybe that's not the best excuse, since I love disguised-girl stories. But no one described it to me as it really was - a dual-narrative steampunk alternative history of WW1 with genetically fabricated creature-ships.

I mean, who would say no to THAT?!
In this steampunk version of Earth that Westerfield has created, the countries of Europe are split along faction lines. On one side are the Clankers. The Clankers build fantastic machines, such as the eight-legged Herkules and the two-legged Stormwalkers (which I steadfastly picture as an AT-ST from Star Wars), and dearly love their technology. They build the best binoculars, the best sonar, the best electric lights. Austria, Prince Alek's country, is a Clanker country, as is Germany and a few others.

On the other side are the Darwinists. Instead of fabricating metal machines, they fabricate life. Following the science of their hero Darwin, they manipulate the life strands (DNA) of various animals to turn bats into bombers, giant jellyfish into living hot-air balloons, and whales into flying ships. Britain, as the birthplace of Darwin, is the leading Darwinist country, but is joined by France, Russia, and others. Britain is also the birthplace of another special Darwinist, Deryn of Glasgow, who disguises herself as a boy and runs away to join the military under the name of Dylan.

When Prince Alek's Clanker parents are assassinated by a Serbian (Darwinist) peasant, the various countries quickly fall into rank beside their respective brethren. A revisionist version of WW1 launches, with Alek, a candidate for the Austrian throne, fleeing from both the Austrian emperor and German soldiers, while Deryn is appointed as the personal aide of a scientist who bears mysterious cargo.

If your world history is a bit weak, don't worry. Leviathan has a gorgeous map on the inside cover that details the different alliances, Clanker, Darwinist, and neutral. (Ah, good ol' Switzerland. Some things never change.) I love maps, so I'm being quite serious when I say I was sucked in from the very first page.
Click to enlarge and see the beauty
The world Westerfield creates makes me tingly with happiness. We're launched into adventure from the beginning, as Deryn is set adrift in a runaway Huxlety (jellyfish hot-air balloon) as a storm charges in from the horizon. On the other side of Europe, Alek is awoken in the middle of the night and kidnapped from his home. Only later does he learn that his parents had been murdered only a few hours prior.

For most of the book, I tolerated the Clanker sections to get back to Deryn's life aboard the Leviathan. The Leviathan is a flying ship fabricated from a monstrous whale. Inside the whale is an entire ecosystem that allows it to fly, defend itself, and wage war. Colonies of bees gather pollen from the land below and turn it into honey, which in turn feeds the whale, which turns the food into hydrogen that buoys the ship and all of its inhabitants. It's all so ingenious and exciting. If I were aboard, I'd explore every inch and then spend the rest of my time whispering silly messages to the messenger lizards.

I was halfway through Leviathan when I went to my store to pick up a copy of Behemoth. I can't wait to read what happens next, but I do hope the next story is stronger when it comes to characters. Both Alek and Deryn are perfectly fine main characters, but I felt they could use a little more meat. I don't know if I'm just used to really mature protagonists or if they were truly as immature as they felt. Of the two, Deryn felt more authentically fifteen, whereas Alek gave me fits from the beginning. When we first meet him, he's playing with tin soldiers. What fifteen-year-old boy plays with tin soldiers?

Alek's portions of the story dragged for me because I couldn't relate to him, but he was much more palatable once the two children finally met. I won't give the details of how it comes about, but I loved seeing each society through the other's eyes. Deryn thought machines inferior and cold compared to her "beasties," while Alek thought the entire menagerie to be unnatural and disgusting. I also loved their personal differences - Alek with his sadness and posh ways, and Deryn with her rough slang and cocky attitude. Oddly, while Deryn felt more authentic age-wise, she never felt like a girl. Had she been written straight as Dylan, boy sailor, I would've been fine. But I never felt comfortable thinking of her as a girl.

Ignore the amnesiatic robot.
The rest of the characters are virtually inconsequential. The only two characters I'll make an exception for are Count Volger and Dr. Barlow. While Volger hovered on the edge of typecast, he is nevertheless a fun counterpoint to Alek. Dr. Barlow, on the other hand, is whip-smart and fantastically in the way. I wouldn't be surprised if she turned out to be the child of Dr. Doppler and Captain Amelia from Treasure Planet.

If you've never read steampunk before, I strongly suggest you start out here. The characters might be a bit weak, but the world-building will take you on such an exciting ride that I dare guess that you won't care one bit. I certainly didn't.

Points Added For: Tazza (I want one!), discussions of how even natural animals seem fabricated, fantastic world-building, Leviathan's ecosystem, Alek's skill with the Stormwalker, the fantastic illustrations, the battle scenes (HOLY COW, Westerfield knocks it out of the park, action-wise).

Points Subtracted For: Some of the less scientific animals (a lizard who perfectly mimics a human?), weak characters, Deryn's murky background and mysteriously disappearing relative.

Good For Fans Of: Steampunk, alternate history, WW1, clean teen adventures.

Notes For Parents: I don't remember any language. People die, but there's nothing graphic.

Buy The Book Now at The Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide