Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld


A few weeks ago, at the library, I saw a really interesting book cover: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. I didn’t pick it up as I have been insanely busy, and my book bag was already overflowing. However, when I saw the Texas Book Festival site and got so excited about the author list, I knew I had to go back and pick up Leviathan as Scott Westerfeld will be in Austin in October! There are also other bloggers whose opinions I respect (like Amanda at The Zen Leaf) who rave about Westerfeld’s series, The Uglies.

Leviathan is set during World War I, and much of it is historically accurate. Westerfeld’s genius, though, is in changing how these events take place, and I was fascinated pretty much from page one. I’ve learned since reading this, the technique is called ‘steampunk.’* The major dividing line between the two sides is not simply political. Instead, the Germans, Austrians, and Russians are Clankers – they create and depend on huge metal, industrial machines to defend themselves. Alek, the son of the assassinated archduke, is thrust from a cush life with simple defense training in a mechanical Stormwalker into defending himself and several servants bound to protect him. Alek’s questionable lineage makes him a threat to the forces wanting to take the place of the archduke. Running from his own people, Alek is forced to look at life in a much different way, made unbelievably clear to him when he comes into contact with the outside world.

The British, not yet in the fight, believe themselves to be more enlightened. Termed the Darwinists, the British rely on new crossbred animals to defend themselves. Scientists look to animals to find strengths and abilities and then use these  to create super animals, such as the leviathan (have I mentioned my love affair with this word? I love it). Filled with hydrogen by other smaller working animals, the leviathan is an air ship, similar to a blimp. Deryn Sharp, a young woman whose father was obsessed with flight, is determined to be in the British Air Service. Young women are not allowed, however, and Deryn must disguise herself and prove she is capable enough to man the ship. When Leviathan comes under attack and crashes in Switzerland near Alek’s secret hiding place, both Alek and Deryn come face to face and forge an unlikely alliance, as the two sides with distinct ideologies (Clankers and Darwinists) are distrustful and skeptical of one another.

This story was fascinating to me: the Darwinist animals and their purposes were interesting (although the implications were somewhat troubling), but the descriptions of them were beautiful as well. The book is illustrated with beautiful work by Keith Thompson and though I loved the illustrations, Westerfeld’s words truly built these creatures in my mind. The mindset of the two sides was evident and understandable – the Darwinists are seen as intervening where they should not be, creating “beasties” for the sole purpose of exploitation. The Clankers are seen as wasteful and unimaginative. Both sides have excellent points, which I think will further be explored in the sequel.

Which brings me to: THE SEQUEL!! I didn’t know anything about this book when I picked it up and certainly didn’t realize there was a sequel, scheduled to appear in October, until I got to the end – a total cliffhanger. When I went in search of the sequel, I realized it wasn’t out yet and was more than a little miffed that Westerfeld would leave me in such a bind. In other words, I LOVED this book. It is an excellent, fun read, and I would recommend it to adults and children alike.

Last and not least, I loved the female roles in this book. Deryn is a feisty, spunky character with great dialogue and an inner drive that is admirable. Plus, she likes science. In fact, she gets totally wrapped up in it:

How old Darwin figured out how to weave new species from old, pulling out the tiny threads of life and tangling together under a microscope. How evolution had squeezed a copy of Deryn’s own life chain into every cell of her body. How umpteen different beasties made up the Leviathan – from microscopic hydrogen-farting bacteria in its belly to the great harnessed whale. How the airships creatures, like the rest of Nature, were always struggling amongst themselves in messy, snarling equilibrium.

Deryn makes no apologies for her preferences and passions, but she certainly gets a kick out of one of Leviathan’s passengers. Dr. Barlow, a female relative of Darwin, makes a surprise appearance on the airship, shocking Deryn, who thus far has only seen that a woman must hide her true identity to do what she loves. Dr. Barlow is stubborn and intelligent and a leader in her field. It was exciting to see such strong female characters, even if one is in disguise. I trust Westerfeld will address this further as the series moves along. Leviathan is an action novel, fun for all ages; pick it up, and watch for my review of Behemoth, the next book of the series.

*Steampunk is really quite fascinating, with origins in many familiar classics authors. I once wrote an essay on the marriage of science and fiction in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The beginnings of the idea are there. Alternate history is really what it’s all about, but it’s also about the scientific discoveries during the late 19th century and early 20th century, which allowed writers, inventors, and artists to open their imaginations to a world previously unknown to them. Another aside: I heard on NPR this morning that Charles Babbage actually invented the first computer in the mid 1800s. Who knew? (If you did and think I’m really lame, please don’t tell me in comments. Thanks.) 🙂

Other reviews:

The Book Smugglers

The Zen Leaf

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9 responses to “Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

  • Nish

    I learnt something new today “steampunk”. I didn’t know it was a writing technique. Great review, but isn’t it awful when you have an awesome cliff-hanger type ending and then you have to WAIT for the next book~

  • Coffee and a Book Chick

    This sounds fantastic-if you and The Zen Leaf are recommending, then I’m definitely going to have to check this out!

  • Steph

    I am always on the lookout for books that might parlay well into read-alouds for me and my husband to share together. I tend to find YA novels work best for this, so I definitely think this would be a good candidate. Sounds like there’s lots there for both of us to enjoy!

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

      Steph – How fun that you guys do that! One of my favorite childhood memories is family summer reading. My brother, sis, and I would each get to pick a book to read aloud during the summer (along with our individual stacks). It was always so much fun.

      This is a really fun read, and the historical and scientific facts really made it a good bridge novel – YA or adult.

  • leeswammes

    Great review – I wasn’t sure whether this book was for me, but this sounds very interesting! I think I might wait until the sequel is out before reading this, though. I would hate to wait for the next part of the story. On the other hand, what if there’s a cliff-hanger at the end of that book too? 🙂

    Hope you’ll join the steampunk challenge!

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

      Well, it’s out early October, so now wouldn’t be too soon. I’ve got a few from your list jotted down. Ihope I can find them at the library. Thanks for stopping by!

      Oh – and if there is a cliffhanger at the end of this one, I will be upset! I don’t like having to wait two years for a sequel.

  • leeswammes

    That would be terrible! 🙂

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