Author: Scott Westerfeld

2009, Simon Pulse

Filed under Young Adult, Sci-Fi, Historical

I don’t really read all that much sci-fi, and even less so niche stuff like steampunk, but if I had to pick a go-to subgenre, steampunk would be my choice. I like the alternate history, low-tech tech, Victorian atmosphere, and funky gadgets. When I learned about Westerfeld’s alternate history of the First World War, battled between an axis of machinists (“Clankers”) and an alliance of nations who rely on biological machines of war (“Darwinists”), I was intrigued. I don’t usually give much credence to book trailers–they are usually rather dumb and tend to commodify books a little more than is to my taste–but the one for Leviathan tickled my fancy. (I’ve embedded it below if you care to watch.)

The story follows two protagonists. Alek is a Hapsburg, the teenage son of the murdered archduke Ferdinand. The center pawn of a political plot that draws the entirety of Europe to war, he is on the run from the pretenders to his throne. He is running, by the way, in a giant, steel and iron, steam-powered, spider-legged tank. And he is being pursued by larger, better armed versions of the same, and by armored dirigibles and planes.

The second protagonist is a British tomboy, Deryn. Deryn’s father was a famous airship pilot, and she changes her name to Dylan in order to enlist in the air force as an ensign. She soon finds herself stationed on the Leviathan as it travels across Europe to Constantinople on a mission to deliver a precious bioengineered cargo–only seen by us as gigantic eggs in an incubator. The Leviathan is the flagship of Britain’s Royal Air Navy. It is a gigantic armored whale, genetically built to float, and carry passengers.

The whale is actually a complex ecosystem full of insects and fauna. Westerfeld thought this out cleverly and elaborately, and takes the time to explain the complex workings of this bio-machine without getting boring or tech-y. Even the weapons are biological–bats fed sharp flechettes are released over Clanker vessels and frightened, causing shrapnel-laden guano to rain upon the enemy, for one example.

This novel is well-paced and plotted, the characters are rich and fleshed nicely, and the atmosphere, setting, and mood are finely crafted. In fact, this book has all the trappings required of a classic young adult epic. The only problem is that it ends just as it gets going.

First entries into series–this is certainly intended as the first book of a franchise–usually stand alone nicely. Most often they depict an entire story arc, later revealed as only a small slice of the universe held within the fiction. That’s pretty much how YA works. But this book is more like an opening act, an elaborate build up to a sequel which will in all likely hood be awesome, but also too short and open ended. So while the rich characters (and plenty of rich illustrations as well) fill this book with excellent  swashbuckling, coal-and-blood-fueled adventure, if you’re seeking a satisfying and whole experience, you may want to wait for the next one or two to come out and read them together as one.

Similar Books: The Golden Compass (Pullman), Steampunk (VanderMeer, eds.), Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (Uehashi)

Here’s the book trailer that snagged me: