fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Scott Westerfeld LeviathanBehemoth by Scott Westerfeld

Behemoth is Scott Westerfeld’s follow-up to Leviathan, the first book in a new steampunk series set in an alternative Europe on the edge of WWI with the Austro-Hungarians and Germans (“Clankers”) using steam-driven machines and the British and their allies (“Darwinists”) using genetic engineering. Leviathan was one of my best reads of 2009, and Behemoth would have been on my list for 2010 had I gotten around to reading it by the time I compiled my list. It has all the usual Westerfeld strengths and it keeps this series rolling along.

The setting for Behemoth has shifted to Constantinople/Istanbul (depending on who is speaking, and I defy you not to have the They Might Be Giants song not playing in your head as you read) as both the Clankers and the Darwinists try to get the upper political hand in this integral location. The worldbuilding opens up not just geographically but also with regard to the two competing technologies as we see wonderfully inventive new creations from both, such as the “Spottiswoode Rebreather… woven from salamander skin and tortoise shell… a set of fabricated gills that had to be kept wet even in storage.”

We’re back with the two main youthful characters, Alek and Deryn, who continue to be engaging and interesting, sharply defined and realistically developed, both as individuals and in their burgeoning relationship. One of my favorite aspects of this book is how Westerfeld keeps their characters fresh by forcing them out of their familiar culture and into the opposing one: in the first book, Alek is forced into the Darwinist world of the Leviathan (the ship, not the book), while in Behemoth, Deryn ends up in the Clanker-dominated city amidst a group of Clankers. Alek, though, isn’t spared having his point of view challenged as one of the Darwinist creatures attaches itself to him, forcing him to deal with it on an ongoing basis. The creature is also of interest in that it not only challenges Alek’s point of view but Deryn’s as well: the Clanker ugliness is easy to see (noise, grime, pollution, cold mechanization) but the darker side of Darwinism is more subtle. Westerfeld does a nice job using the creature as a means of showing that dark side. New characters are a bit more diverse than in Leviathan, as one might expect in a cosmopolitan Istanbul that sits astride two cultures/continents. The new ones are efficiently drawn and interesting in their own right as opposed to simple plot devices, so much so I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of them, perhaps even in another point-of-view narration.

Westerfeld writes books that are exactly as long as they need to be (oh for more like him!) and Behemoth is no exception: the plot is fast-paced and rollicking, a tightly constructed adventure story with action scenes coming at the reader regularly, finally building up to a spectacular confrontation, a sequence one would love to see on film. That isn’t to say it’s all speed; he knows when to slow things down for a telling detail, as when he describes the long trunk of a giant Clanker walker that “pushed carts aside, and even rescued a child’s fallen toy from being crushed by the walker’s giant feet.” There are some excellent twists and turns, a balanced mix of humor and tragedy, and a surprising love interest.

As mentioned with regard to Leviathan, don’t be put off by Behemoth’s YA label — this is a fun, smart series suitable for all ages. Highly recommended.

~Bill CapossereLeviathan (3 book series) Kindle Edition

Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld fantasy book reviewsBehemoth, the second book in Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk LEVIATHAN trilogy continues his action-packed story of two youngsters caught up in an alternate-world version of World War I in which real figures and events of the period are mingled with Westerfeld’s own imaginative ideas.

In his take on 1914 Europe, the Allies and the Central Powers are not only divided by war but by their opposing technologies: the German states are known as Clankers due to their mastery of steam-driven machinery, whilst the Allies follow the teachings of Charles Darwin, who discovered a way to manipulate “the threads of life” and design genetically engineered “fabricated beasts” to function as anything from messengers to living airships.

Behemoth‘s chapters alternate between the two protagonists: Aleksander, son of the assassinated Archduke of Austria-Hungary, and Deryn Sharp, a girl who has disguised herself as a boy to fulfil her dreams of flying in the British Air Service. As Alek is a prince posing as a commoner, and Deryn is a girl posing as a boy, both clutch tightly to their secrets, knowing that the revelation of their true selves is a matter of life or death. Yet despite Alek not yet knowing about Deryn’s gender, the two became fast friends over the course of the last book, Leviathan, resulting in Clanker and Darwinist technology being merged together to get the Leviathan airship out of a sticky situation.

Now the airship floats toward Istanbul (or Constantinople), a city in the midst of the Ottoman Empire which is on the brink of joining the war — but not necessarily on the Allies’ side. It is the Leviathan‘s peacekeeping mission to deliver Doctor Nora Barlow to the Sultan’s palace so that she might offer him compensation for the ships confiscated by Winston Churchill, a dilemma that has been lifted directly from history in which the famous First Lord of the Admiralty decided to seize a warship that the Ottoman Empire had already commissioned and paid for. This slight may well push the Empire into allying itself with Germany, and only Doctor Barlow’s mysterious fabricated eggs hold any hope in repelling German forces already exercising their power over the Sultan.

As the assassination of Alek’s parents is what started the war in the first place, Alek feels a certain sense of responsibility in facilitating its conclusion, whilst Deryn struggles every day with her secret — not helped at all by the fact that she’s gradually falling in love with Alek. Both characters go through a huge amount of development over the course of Behemoth — with Alek challenging the authority of his guardian Wildcount Volger, arguing over the specifics of their escape attempt, and unexpectedly finding himself in charge, whilst Deryn becomes part of a secret mission to weaken the Empire’s defences and has to think on her feet as it spirals out of control. When both are set adrift in the melting pot of cultures that make up Istanbul, they are caught up amongst revolutionaries (complete with a wonderful new female character called Lilit, who provides a spanner in the works of what is already a confusing love triangle) and find themselves in a position to act upon information known only to them.

Scott Westerfeld is best compared to Philip Reeve, author of THE HUNGRY CITY CHRONICLES, and Philip Pullman, of HIS DARK MATERIALS fame. All three authors have highly-imaginative world-building, vivid characterization, swift and suspenseful plotting and a clear, concise writing style. The chapters whizz by, and there’s not really much you can critique: every page is bursting with witty lines or a shocking twist or a clever conceit. Westerfeld plays fast and loose with history, combining elements such as the ironclads Breslau and Goeben, Admiral Wilhelm Souchon and the Orient Express with his own imaginative strength: walking mechanical beds, taxies that scuttle about like scarab beetles, and a living ship that contains its own eco-system, complete with lizards that mimic the voices of others in order to deliver messages and flechette bats that can rain down tiny metal spikes on enemy forces.

Oddly, Nora Barlow’s mysterious eggs are not as important as one was led to believe from the first book. Though they hatch into some rather delightful creatures over the course of the story, their role in the narrative is a bit of an anti-climax after the huge build-up in the first book. Yet this is more an observation than a criticism and hardly detracts from the story. From the streets of Istanbul to the icy wastelands of Russia, encompassing colourful characters ranging from the meddling journalist Eddie Malone to the beautiful and lethal revolutionary Lilit, as well as containing dozens of black-and-white illustrations by Keith Thompson, Behemoth is my favourite book of the three.

The LEVIATHAN trilogy blew me away with its creativity and verve; books that explore politics, relationships, duty and progress, all taking place in an ingenious steampunk setting, where two people can forge a friendship (or perhaps more) despite being on different sides of one of the greatest conflicts in history. Be sure to have the final book, Goliath, on hand.

~Rebecca Fisher

fantasy book review Scott Westerfeld LeviathanBehemoth is the second book in Scott Westerfeld’s YA LEVIATHAN trilogy. In the first book, Leviathan, Prince Aleksander, son of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, goes on the run after his parents are assassinated in Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary is an ally of Germany, which has just declared war on England; and a proponent of Clanker technology, steam-powered machines including weapons like the fearsome walkers. England is filled with “Darwinists,” who eschew mechanical invention and prefer to tweak the infinitesimal “life-thread” of DNA to create organic machines such as the living airship Leviathan. In the first book Alek meets Deryn, a midshipman aboard the Leviathan. She is disguised as a boy and uses the name Dylan. Circumstances force the crew of the wounded Leviathan and the fugitive royal party to work together, forging a hybrid machine, and now Leviathan has metal steam engines implanted aboard.

Behemoth finds our adventurers in Istanbul. Before the war, England had agreed to build a warship with a “companion creature” for the Ottoman Empire. With the outbreak of hostilities, England reneged on its promise and kept the warship. Leviathan is sent to deliver the Sultan a gift, or a bribe to bring him back around to the British side. At least, that is the stated purpose for their visit.

Alek is in an awkward position aboard the Leviathan, part guest, part prisoner. He uses the stop at Istanbul to escape from the airship, but his mentor the Wildcount Volker is recaptured. Deryn, meanwhile, is put in charge of a perilous secret mission. She is successful but at great cost, losing her men and becoming stranded. She heads into Istanbul herself, where she reconnects with Alek and his new friends, anti-government rebels.

Behemoth is fast-paced, filled with detailed descriptions of a colorful and diverse city. Westerfeld introduces interesting new characters, including an American reporter and a family of revolutionaries. He even sets up a romantic triangle (the rebel girl has a crush on Deryn, who isn’t a boy, and who has a crush on the real boy) although the plot does not allow much time for this theme to play out. Alek and Deryn soon discover that the Germans, who are well established in Istanbul, are building a Tesla Tower, a weapon that will incinerate the Leviathan and her crew. From then, the suspense mounts as they race to stop the Leviathan from flying into a trap.

The character who grows the most in the course of this book is Alek, who progresses as both a man and a prince. Westerfeld is not afraid to let the politics be complex, demonstrating diplomacy, treachery, and layers of loyalty. Alek struggles with his own role as the legitimate heir of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, despite the fact that his mother was a commoner; he deplores the Darwinist experiments as “abominations” but feels most at home aboard the Leviathan. Deryn’s loyalty is to Britain but she can’t help trying to help Alek, who will probably be a prisoner in a golden cage if he ends up in Britain. Chauvinistic Count Volker resented the Archduke’s marriage to Alek’s mother, but he proves his devotion to Alek over and over. These complexities lend color and spice to a story already nicely filled with action and intrigue.

Deryn does not develop. She is already smart, observant, inventive and brave. Early in the book, she faces what should be her greatest fear with hardly any agonizing. Her feelings for Alek developed very quickly, and off the page, as near as I can tell. All she really needs to do is tell him she’s a girl. To be fair, in Behemoth, she does invent one of the best guerrilla warfare weapons I’ve seen recently, but she is practically perfect and too good to be true.

The behemoth is also disappointing. This is merely a problem of expectation. The Leviathan played a large role in both books, so I was expecting the behemoth to be as interesting. When the war-beast shows up near the end of the book, it is a more general monster, not as fascinating as the airship.

Keith Thompson’s black and white illustrations help create the theme of Edwardian other-worldliness, with his slender fey-looking figures. I had some trouble with the larger pictures because I found them just too dark — they seemed to swallow up detail — but the four-color end-papers of the hardback edition are exquisite.

By creating an alternate-history world based on real-world events, Westerfeld generates curiosity and interest. Schoolroom history is often about memorization of facts and events: Novels help us understand the reasons for those events. I hope that Westerfeld’s readers will go to the internet — or maybe even their local library — to find out more about the historical events he has used as his starting points.

~Marion Deeds


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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