October 26, 2012
GENRE: Adventure - Steampunk / Alt. History
AGE: 12 and up
Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, the first book in a planned trilogy, is the sort of old-fashioned adventure novel that you don't see much of anymore. It's the sort of book that would have shared shelf-space with Treasure Island and The Time Machine if it were written 100 years ago, which it couldn't have been, even if Orwell could have conceived of genetic mutations and gene splicing. This is mostly because, for all its harkening back to the days of the "boy's adventure story," Westerfeld's Leviathan is the product of a modern phenomena - the mashed-up landscape of alt. history in all it's steam-powered glory.
The book starts on the night of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination, an event that plunged Europe into the First World War. The Archduke's son, Prince Aleksander, flees for the Swiss border with a handful of trusted retainers in a Cyklops Stormwalker, as massive, humanoid war machine. With that, Westerfeld plunges the reader into an alternative world, one where WWI is fought between Clankers (nations with advanced mechanized technology) and the Darwinists (England and it's allies, who create new species based on Darwin's principles).
Westerfeld develops both sides through alternating chapters. While Alek learns to pilot the Stormwalker and dodge hostile troops, a young woman named Daryn Sharp disguises herself as a boy and joins the British Air Service. Through sheer accident, (her cephalopodic jellyfish - you really just need to read the book - gets caught in a storm), she's rescued by the Leviathan, a massive, living, hydrogen-based airship. As events on the world stage grow tense, the Stormtrooper and the Leviathan make their way to Switzerland, where Alek's Clankers and the Deryn's Darwinists finally meet.
Before you know it, you're fully engaged in the Leviathan's secret mission to Constantinople and the question of how Alek will survive the war without getting assassinated. It's Westerfeld's mastery of real history that makes his alternative history so seemlessly compelling. There is nothing inauthentic about the tension between the Clankers and the Darwinists. The fabric of cultural antipathy is woven so tightly that you never question the possibility of the mechanical and genetic advances that define each society.
And it isn't just the world that fascinates. Deryn and Alek are honestly interesting. Though they both fit certain archetypes, there is nothing of the stock character about either of them. Both are nuanced individuals who grow as a result of the rather extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. The supporting characters are equally fun, particularly Wildcount Volger, the mastermind behind Alek's escape, and Dr. Nora Barlow, a female "boffin" or genetic engineer who tartly takes all manner of things into her own hands.These adults are quirky, flawed and capable. They leave the young protagonists ample room to move and plenty of agency without descending into the stereotypical uselessness of so many adults in book for teens.
To make a long story short - too late, I know - Leviathan is a shockingly fun read. Get past the first several chapters and you're off. Even without the maps and illustrations (which are jolly good fun), it's nearly impossible not to get sucked into Westerfeld's WWI. Entirely engaging and oddly educational, Leviathan is classic in the best sense of the word.