Leviathan is the beginning of a new steampunk YA series by Scott Westerfeld, author of other well-known (and highly recommended) YA series such as Uglies and Midnighters, along with one of my favorite non-YA science fiction works of recent memory, The Risen Empire (even more highly recommended). As is usual with good YA, don’t let the label turn you away; Westerfeld knows how to write for a younger audience without dumbing things down and without excluding older readers.
Leviathan is set in a mostly familiar historical world just on the cusp of World War I. Familiar as in the geography, populations, etc. are all pretty much the same — you’ve got your Austro-Hungarians, Germans, British Empire, etc and your Arch-Duke Ferdinand, who does go and get himself assassinated. In this version, however, he has a son, Alek, who manages to escape with the help of some loyal staffers.
Oh yeah — another small difference is that the Austro-Hungarians and Germans (and allies) employ powerful steam-driven machinery (Alek, for example, escapes in a Walker — a steam-powered version, though even cooler, of the walkers in Star Wars) and are known as Clankers for their marvelous mechanical devices. The English and their allies, on the other hand, went in a wholly different direction, following the path of Charles Darwin, who in this history learned how to manipulate DNA. They now bioengineer what they need, such as the eponymous Leviathan, a huge airship which is really an entire eco-system centered on a whale, but also including creatures such as hydrogen-sniffers to find leaks, floating jellyfish as personal balloons, messenger lizards that speak, and bats that, well, why ruin the fun with that one? Logically enough, the English and friends are known as Darwinists and so, rather than Allies-Axis, one has a war between Clankers and Darwinists, with an heir to an empire running around trying to avoid capture.
Alex’s story takes up one narrative strand from the start, beginning with the news of his father’s death and Alek’s subsequent escape. A twinned narrative is set in England and follows a young girl, Deryn, who disguises herself as a boy in order to join the British Air Service, as her now-dead father once did. As one would expect, the two strands eventually come together and Alek and Deryn meet, eventually ending up together as they move toward book two.
The world-building in terms of Clankers and Darwinists is wonderful, with lots of vibrant, original imagery; it’s clear that Westerfeld had a good time coming up with the various mechanicals and “beasties,” and his enthusiastic creativity and fanciful prose descriptions are nicely complemented by Keith Thompson’s black-and-white illustrations throughout.
The plot is well-paced throughout (no bloat in this book) and suspense comes in a variety of ways — from small stealth-stalk scenes to full-pitched aerial battles, but also from moments of personal decision — whom to trust, how to act on that trust, what secrets to keep, etc.
Westerfeld’s strength has always been his characterization, and this is true of Leviathan as well. Both Alek and Deryn are fully fleshed-out realistic teen characters, with none of the two annoying extremes one often finds in such portrayals: the wise-beyond-their-years type or the slangy too-dumbed-down type. Both feel like real teens and act as such, for good and bad. Side characters are sharply drawn and complex, such as Count Volger, one of Alek’s loyal staffers, or Dawinia, a mysterious passenger picked up in London. And all the characters grow/develop/unfold new complexities as the story continues.
Leviathan is a wonderful mix of the utterly original and the familiar — alternate history layered atop known history, engineering and biology tweaked a bit askew from what we now know and do, fresh portrayal of age-old fantasy/storytelling tropes (orphan protagonists, an heir in hiding, a girl disguised as a boy, adolescent bickering combined with attraction, etc.), use of paired imagery/themes (Clankers vs. Darwinists, Luddites vs Progressives, boy vs. girl, etc.) It all just works as a compelling story, a fun ride, an exuberantly creative ride, and confirms Scott Westerfeld as one of the best writers going now. Highly recommended.
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated; this single event put into motion a chain of events that lead to what we now call World War I. That event begins the story told in Leviathan, but it soon becomes clear that everything else about Scott Westerfeld‘s setting is completely different from history as we know it.
The great European powers are divided into two opposing sides, but in Leviathan, each side has its own distinct technology and weaponry. Austro-Hungary and Germany are known as Clankers, having mastered the use of steam-driven war machines, whilst the British powers are known as Darwinists, having learnt how to manipulate the “threads of life” and genetically engineer animals to serve in their armies. The book’s namesake is one such creature, a giant leviathan that carries its own eco-system of bats, lizards, glowworms and other creatures living in symbiosis, and which serves as a living airship to its crew.
The story follows two young protagonists as they are drawn into the war that is steadily brewing across the continent, and the chapters alternate between of the two of them in the lead-up to their inevitable meeting halfway through the book. The first involves the Archduke’s only son Aleksander who is whisked away from his bedroom in the middle of the night by his fencing master to a mechanical stormwalker, soon to find himself on the run from the German forces that are out to assassinate the last heir to the Austrian throne. Having to deal with his parents’ deaths and his exile into a harsh environment, Aleksander is forced to grow up quickly as a leader of men and a crucial figure in the coming war.
On the other side of the conflict is Deryn Sharp, a midshipman with a secret: he is actually a she, drawn by a love of flying to disguise herself as a boy and join the crew of the Leviathan. When the ship is commandeered to transport a scientist to the Ottoman Empire, Deryn is astonished to find that Doctor Barlow is a vivacious young woman with a pet Tasmanian tiger and a heavy crate of something that is every bit as secret as Deryn’s true identity. Unsure what their mission is, Deryn is determined to simply enjoy her newfound freedom while it lasts.
Eventually the teenagers cross paths in Switzerland, where loyalties are called into question as each comes to rely on the other for their own survival. With the Germans closing in and food in short supply, an alliance between the two groups is necessary as their mutual enemy approaches. Though it’s quite episodic in nature, the story has a great build up to its climax and a broad scope as the characters traverse the mountains, various countries, and of course, the sky.
The main draw-card of the book (and its sequels) is the fascinating world that Westerfeld has created. Melding a WWI setting with steampunk sensibilities, the world of Leviathan is filled with intriguing quirks and discoveries, from the living airship to the rattling mechanics and how each character operates in this off-kilter world. Westerfeld clearly as a lot of fun with his skewed version of history, adding in a few genuine historical figures and anecdotes (which he discusses in his afterword) and using it as a backdrop to raise several questions about the nature of allies and enemies and what each means to the other in times of war.
Another nice touch is the stylistic differences between Alek and Deryn’s chapters; whereas Alek’s narrative is written in clear, refined prose, Deryn’s is more casual and littered with heavy use of slang terms such as ‘clart,’ ‘beastie,’ ‘bum-rag’ and ‘barking spiders,’ which double as swear-words in times of crisis. Alek reconciling his privileged upbringing with life on the run, and Deryn trying to grasp the behavior and mannerisms of a young man, are well realized and make up most of their characterization throughout the story.
Deryn and Alek are surrounded by capable, intelligent adults that often help and seldom hinder them, allowing them to grow into adults without the need for them to upstage every adult that crosses their path. It’s a rare thing in YA fiction to have sympathetic grownups involved heavily in the action, while still letting the young protagonists be the heroes. Westerfeld strikes a good balance, with adults and youngsters alike relying on each other, making mistakes, and learning valuable life lessons as Alek and Deryn’s idealism is simultaneously eroded and validated by their actions. Alek and Deryn’s interaction with the surly, no-nonsense Count Volger and the sharp, rather self-involved Doctor Barlow are particularly good.
I don’t read a lot of steampunk (it’s not that I don’t like it, I just seldom come across it), but Westerfeld is masterful at creating the visceral elements of this world, from the smell of oil to the sound of fabricated animals to what it must feel like to dangle at one hundred feet from a giant floating jellyfish. The book is completely immersive when it comes to the sights and sounds of its setting, and despite the strangeness of his spin on science and biology, Westerfeld makes it all feel oddly plausible. He’s in clear control of the rules that he’s set for himself in the making of this world, and everything has a weight and internal logic to it that lets it all hang together.
The ending is wide open for a sequel, and with plenty of humor, invention, action, intrigue and the first hints of an impending romance in this installment, the series can only get better as Westerfeld delves deeper into this alternative history with Behemoth.