Author: Scott Westerfeld

2011, Simon Pulse

Filed Under: Young Adult, Sci-Fi, Historical.

Goliath closes the YA trilogy Westerfeld opened barely two years ago with Leviathan (if you want to get caught up, you can read my review of Leviathan here, and my review of the middle book, Behemoth, here). Like its predecessors, Goliath is a fun adventure set in a creative alternate history, where World War One is a fierce battle between the steampunk Clankers (Germany and friends) and the Darwinists (headed by Britain) whose army consists of giant biological weapons created by genetically modifying lifeforms–the titular Leviathan being an armored airship supported by a flying whale.

Deryn, the girl posing as a midshipman in the British Air Navy, and Alek, the Hapsberg prince hoping to find a means of peace, continue their adventure right where things left off. There’s plenty of spectacle in this book, and even more historical figures make their way onto the pages (Nikola Tesla, William Randolph Hearst, Pancho Villa, and others).

As you might expect from the third book of a trilogy, Westerfeld elevates the main characters to global importance, making them lynchpins in the outcome of a world war. Another major factor is a doomsday weapon know as Goliath. With it, Tesla has managed to harness the ability to influence electrical currents from across hemispheres. But whose side he’s on isn’t entirely clear.

There’s a healthy dose of politics at work in this installment, both concerning the war and allegiances, but also in the bubbling up and concealment of series-long secrets–namely Deryn’s gender. It’s good that these threads carry so nicely between the books, because like its predecessors’ plotlines, the events here all open and close neatly in a single volume. But unlike the previous books, which more or less occur in a single setting, this book features lots of globe-trotting.

While adventurous, this served to highlight for me this series’ biggest shortcoming: Westerfeld focuses too much on moment-to-moment adventure at the expense of big-picture storytelling. There’s a a really interesting overarching storyline, it just isn’t granted enough attention to feel nearly as epic as it should. This is a book about a great war fought between nations that use fantastic machines and creatures as weapons and vehicles. It’s a creative setting, and an awesome one; one that ought to be vibrant and as memorable as you can get. The elements are all there, but even after three books, it just never clicks.

Here’s where I come down: this entire trilogy should have been one book. Had that been the case, I think talking about it as a lasting work of children’s lit could be warranted. But instead, the story has been chopped up into 3 somewhat short and easily consumable–then, unfortunately, forgettable–pieces. This was a concern I mentioned in my write up of the first book, as the plot arc quickly closed just as I was being drawn into the greater story, leaving the novel feeling more like an episode than a complete entity.

All told, this entire trilogy isn’t that long. Each book weighs in at 400-500 pages, but with big margins, lots of white space and dialogue, and the copious illustrations (one of the books’ many strengths), they feel a whole lot shorter. The entire trilogy would fit, I surmise, in a normally laid-out paperback of about 500 pages or so.

An epic story like Westerfeld’s in a single big novel is the kind of thing I would have gobbled up when I was younger, and probably still might today. (Of course, in that form it couldn’t be sold to me at the price of 3 hardcovers.) I hope these books found success, it is a great adventure set in a unique world. And perhaps it’s not fair to blame Westerfeld for following the genre’s conventions for serialized scenarios, or for earning the best living he can. But it’s impossible not to notice.

It’s just a shame this is the kind of book that gets lost in a sea of shiny-on-black-cover YA books lined on a Barnes & Noble shelf, rather than one earning its tattered cover in a young reader’s backpack. Hopefully when they get around to releasing these in paperback they consider compiling them, but somehow I doubt that happens.

Similar Reads: Leviathan (Westerfeld), Behemoth (Westerfeld), Boneshaker (Priest)