BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Scott Westerfeld
2010, Simon Pulse
Filed Under: Young Adult, Historical, Sci-Fi, Fantasy
My biggest gripe with Westerfeld’s Leviathan was that it was too much a set-up for a trilogy and not as satisfying a standalone story as the lead entry in a series ought to be. Seeing as Behemoth is the second entry of said planned trilogy, that problem is no longer as glaring. Still, this too acts as a build up for a larger conflict, but rather than leaving us at the precipice, it–as a good middle segment should–aligns the plot’s working pieces then sets things in motions for a hefty conflict in book three. All that aside, this novel features all the aspects that made the first book intriguing, as well as an arguably tighter story arc.
Behemoth picks up with Deryn, the girl posing as a male in order to be British midshipman, and Alek, the Hapsburg prince on the lam, aboard the great flying whale dirigible following the escape at the end of Leviathan. They head for Istanbul, where the majority of the story unfolds.
(I gave a breakdown of the basic conceits of the series in my review of Leviathan, so if you haven’t read it go check out that first–but in brief, this is a steampunk retelling of World War One, where the machinist “Clanker” Eastern Europeans are in conflict with the “Darwinist” Western Europeans’ army, which is built around giant creatures created by manipulating evolution into complex living vehicles and biological weapons. So by whale dirigible, I mean it’s literally a huge, floating, armored whale.)
The currently neutral Ottomans are miffed with the British Darwinists (many of whom stubbornly call the capital Constantinople), since the Leviathan was intended as a peace offering to the sultan, which Churchill decided to “borrow” and use in the war against the Germans rather than deliver as promised. Deryn is part of a diplomatic mission to convince the Ottomans to remain neutral. It doesn’t go so well, and it soon becomes clear the Germans control Istanbul. Meanwhile, Alek finds himself in a politically tight spot. The Germans want him dead, and if the British knew he was heir to the Austrian throne, he would quickly become an imprisoned pawn. He flees the Leviathan, and falls in with some revolutionaries in the Ottoman capital.
Westerfeld plots his book with pleasing intricacy. It’s not overly complex, but he hits his beats with great pacing, and throws in enough twists to avoid predictability–two crucial elements of successful YA writing. Moreover, the giant machines and weaponized “beasties” that are the hallmark of the novels are even cooler in this book. The Germans use primarily humongous steam powered walkers, swift little gyropcopters, and towering Tesla cannons. The Brits have all sorts of inventive creations at their disposal. Indeed the Leviathan is essentially a working, flying ecosystem. The perspicacious loris which accompanies the heroes, makes for an intriguing character and plot point (provided Westerfeld doesn’t turn him into a Jar Jar Binks in the third book). Then there is their impossibly large, and top secret, Behemoth. The main plot of the book concerns Deryn and Alek teaming up to help the Brits use it for a surprise attack on the German Clankers in Istanbul, so I won’t say more beyond that.
The Ottoman additions to the book are especially pleasing. The Istanbulites for the most part don’t use biological technologies, but their machines are built to resemble them. Where the Clankers pilot slightly grotesque looking, spider-like machines that spew smoke and oil, the Ottoman’s possess large, graceful machines built to resemble animals and deities. Westerfeld nicely uses technology to parse out the various allegiances. A vast, melting-pot city, Istanbul houses many allegiances across many districts. I especially liked Keith Thompson’s fine illustrations of the Jewish Golems.
Yes, the illustrations. The first book had a number of fine drawings accompanying its chapters. This sequel has even more. They are by the same illustrator as the first book, and look really good. Not only page spreads, there are also sketches that nestle in amongst the paragraphs too. They are done in a black and white sketch style, and do a great job of accompanying the novel’s continuous action.
This is a exciting and swashbuckling adventure, and a very fine example of young adult storytelling done properly. It improves on its predecessor in almost every way, and is a great reason to go ahead and read Leviathan and get caught up before the final volume arrives.
Similar Reads: Leviathan (Westerfeld), Zombies Vs. Unicorns (Black, ed.)