Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Leviathan: A Whale of a Story

LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld
4Q 3P; Audience: M/J/S

This is another book I finished quite a while ago but haven’t had the time to write about. (It’s a good thing I don’t write under deadline. Then again, if I did have a deadline, maybe it would help get my thoughts marshaled into order and out of my head in a timelier fashion!)

It’s 1914. Europe is divided between two ideologies, Clanker vs Darwinist. The Clanker countries rely on mechanical technology – iron and steam-powered devices such as the enormous multi-legged machines that carry them into battle. The Darwinists bioengineer animals to create not only beasts of burden but also weapons of war. A face-down is fast approaching.

When Aleksander Ferdinand, prince of Austria-Hungary, is woken in the middle of the night by two of his tutors, he has no idea that he has just become a pawn in the political maneuverings of the Clankers. He has no idea that the assassination of the Archduke has left him an orphan or that his continued existence may be the spark that provokes a world war. All he knows is that he and a small band of loyal men are on the run, and the only thing that may keep them alive until they reach their safe house is the protection of their Cyklop Stormwalker and its cannon and machine guns.

Across the ocean in London, Deryn Sharp is preparing for the midshipman’s entrance exam into the Royal Air Service. She’s confident of passing every test but one: will she be able to convincingly play the part of a boy so that she’s allowed to follow her dream?

When a furious storm during her testing leaves Deryn/Dylan and her Huxley ascender floating miles off course, she is rescued by the Royal Navy’s largest air ship, the Leviathan (a sperm whale enhanced by a hundred other species). But instead of returning her to London to continue her test, the crew, Deryn/Dylan included, has been ordered to fly to the Continent to keep an eye on the Clankers in the wake of the Archduke’s assassination.

Both Alek and Deryn are catapulted into the middle of world-changing events. On opposite sides of the edge of war, what will happen when their paths converge?


I’m just discovering steampunk (see also: Wikipedia's article) and finding that I like the combination of science fiction and alternate history to explore how the addition of technology (either anachronistic or fictional) might have affected the (usually*) Victorian Age. It helps that the mid-late 1800’s is my preferred historical fiction time period. (*Edited to add that I'm aware that this book is set a few years post-Victorian Age.)

What I really liked about Leviathan:
  • The fast pace. It’s pretty much non-stop chases, clashes, and collisions.
  • Devyn’s part of the story is at least as action-packed as Alek’s, so the girl never takes a back seat to the boy.
  • Alek, Devyn, and Count Volger are forceful personalities that really burst off the page. In particular, I love Devyn’s feisty, take-no-guff attitude.
  • Alek’s evolution (it’s formulaic, to be sure, but effective nonetheless)
  • Westerfeld doesn’t get too bogged down describing the new technology, be it Darwinian or Clanker (Though I got confused in a few places, it didn’t really matter.)
  • Striking black and white illustrations which really set the mood and style of the story.
  • C’mon! Who wouldn’t have fun with the idea hitching a ride on a giant jellyfish or gargantuan sperm whale?

  • It's a trilogy, so there's more to come!

What I didn’t like as much:
  • Nothing, really. But I guess I’m a Darwinist at heart, because I was more intrigued by the idea of the bioengineered animals than I was with the machinery of the Clankers. I was a more interested reader when the action began centering around the Leviathan.
  • We have to wait until late 2010 for Book Two (Behemoth).

To hear a chapter from the book, see some of the illustrations, or just read Scott's thoughts about the series, check out Scott Westerfeld's blog. Scott also blogged about how he structures his books to make sure there's a good blend of action, tension, and "nothing".

This book will appeal to both boys and girls who like adventure and action. It’s a natural suggestion for readers who enjoyed Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, the Bloody Jack books by L.M. Meyers, or Philip Reeves’s Mortal Engines* and/or Larklight* series. (*These two series are miles apart in tone, but both have elements which pair well with Leviathan.)


  1. It's really funny how suddenly with Leviathan everyone is learning the term steampunk. It turns out that a lot of books that I've really enjoyed in the past few years are part of that sub-genre and they are so much fun! My favorites to this point, besides Leviathan (I'm with you one hundred percent about the Darwinian animal creations!) are the "Larklight" series books by Reeve. They are so tongue-in-cheek funny...

  2. I agree about the Larklight series. They're such fun! I laughed out loud in the first book when Reeve started slipping in allusions to Star Trek. (Or was it Star Wars? It's been a while since I read it.) And it was illuminating to realize how many steampunk books I've read recently, once I had a definition to match them to!

  3. I just finished listening to this. LOVED Alan Cumming's performance. The idea of the zeppelins made me think of Airborn series by Kenneth Oppel. Westerfeld took the story to a whole new level. I can't wait to read the next one.


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