Let’s all take a journey back to World War 1, with a twist. The Germans and Austrians are Clankers, those that rely on cool walking war machines to do the job, whereas Britain, France and Russia are Darwinists, those that breed and use cool animal hybrids to wage war (and serve more everyday functions).
Deryn is a Scottish girl who disguises herself as a boy for the doubtful privilege of being able to fly again (in the British Air Force, in a giant flying whale, duh). Alek is the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who just had to get himself killed to give the war a reason to start. The two go through all the typical problems their positions hold (Don’t let your gender be discovered! Run away from the Germans!) while the airship Leviathan is sent on a secret mission to fly somewhere, and Alek is sent on a secret mission to…hide and become a hermit. Albeit a rich one.
The Quills: 8/10
Deryn felt brilliant, rising through the air at the center of everyone’s attention, like an acrobat aloft on a swing. She wanted to make a speech: “Hey, all you sods, I can fly and you can’t! A natural airman, in case you haven’t noticed. And in conclusion, I’d like to add that I’m a girl and you can all get stuffed!”
-Scott Westerfeld, Leviathan
Leviathan is a YA steampunk science fiction novel (emphasis on young) and is narrated in third person in turns by Deryn and Alek. Unfortunately for Alek, Deryn totally overshadows him; she’s got so much spunk that when it comes to his turn to narrate, he doesn’t really have any kind of voice except bumbling and confused. The writing is driven by attitude rather than eloquence, which lends itself a lot to characterization.
Westerfeld presents a lot of really interesting characters, so while the tropes are familiar, the characters make them fresh and shiny again. And not all of them are totally flat either! Well, there really are only 4 or 5 characters that get more than 3 lines, so characterizing them is relatively easy.
The world is well built and incredibly interesting. And somehow it just has an internal logic that works. The bizarre animals and mechs are well described and I can see them in my mind’s eye. If you’re more visually inclined, there are also a beautiful set of illustrations that can paint out the world even more clearly.
The interesting voices of the narration act as a double-edged sword when setting tone. Because Deryn is always so spunky and ready to go, you don’t really get a sense of the fear of war. Or maybe that’s how 15-year-olds view it? Alek panics a bit more but his line is mostly “Crap, gotta sneak past them” rather than “We’ll risk our lives in battle”.
The book cuts off at the end kind of abruptly and it doesn’t really feel like an end, which leaves me wondering if Leviathan and its sequel were originally one book that had to get divided down the middle.
The Roses: 8/10
This book was really fun. Which is weird, since it’s about war, right? But the characters made it fun, and the alternate history was really interesting. And now I want a pet Huxley.
I’m kind of hoping that in the next two books, Alek gets a personality because I really want him to be interesting too, but when I get to his part, I’m always missing Deryn. There are other really interesting characters, both on the Darwinist and Clanker sides that I’m looking forward to seeing come out with their secrets.
In summary, Leviathan is a well-crafted, fun romp for younger young adult readers and those who don’t mind light war stories.