Review: Leviathan

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Leviathan is one of the books that made me start book blogging, when I heard about it last year. It was featured on my very first Literary Horizon. Steampunk, World War I, a girl disguising herself as a boy to get into the military… it’s one of those novels that feels like it’s expressly designed to appeal to me. It has taken me a while to get my hands on a copy, but my hold finally came through at my local library.

And it was well worth the wait!

Leviathan starts on the eve of World War I. Europe is divided between Clankers–countries that use advanced machinery for warfare–and Darwinists–countries that use specially evolved animals as their war machines. Clanker Austria is torn apart when Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated. His son, Alek, flees the country with a small fleet of men and both Austria and Germany in pursuit. Across the Channel in Darwinist England, Deryn Sharp, a Scottish girl, is passing herself off as a boy in order to join the Air Service and finds herself on board a massive and legendary whale airship, the Leviathan. As Europe hurtles closer and closer to war, Deryn’s and Alek’s paths cross in the strangest of ways.

As in Uglies, the world building is fantastic and accessible–quite a feat for an alternate history steampunk novel that involves evolving animals to your very whims. It’s very firmly 1914, with all the classism and sexism of the time. While we haven’t encountered racism yet, I think it’ll crop up in the sequel. The Darwinists, of course, require a little more explaining than the Clankers. In this history, Darwin discovers DNA (called “life threads” by Darwinists) and how to manipulate it to create new animals, which the Darwinist countries ran wild with, fabricating animals to suit their every need. Opposition to such animals is mostly religious. For instance, the Ottoman Empire is noted to be Clanker, as Islam frowns upon such creatures. There’s a wonderful passage where Deryn and Alek argue about which approach is better, and you can really see how it affects both their cultures. It’s impeccable.

Alek is wonderfully noble, young, and classist. When he spends time in a poor village, he doubts his father’s idea to give every man the opportunity to vote is at all sound. I was quite delighted by this turn, I have to say. It’s very true to the time period, and I would have been confused if he wasn’t. He’s very determined to be a great leader and do the right thing, although he has his moments of doubt. Deryn, however, outstrips him by far. She’s very clever, with a natural (but believable) talent with the fabricated animals. She is a soldier through and through, a fact Alek notes with great awe. She’s Scottish, she swaggers, and she’s worn out by all the work being a boy is, although she takes to it with great relish. When she finds herself developing a crush on Alek, she’s not so much delighted as exasperated by it, which made me laugh. Alek’s near hero-worship of “Dylan” (Deryn’s male alias) is very sweet, as he sees “him” as a sort of dashing Scottish air pirate. In short, Deryn is a brilliant character.

The rest of the supporting cast is quite well done, especially Dr. Barlow, a lady zoologist who ends up on the Leviathan, bossing everyone around and making Deryn nervous. She’s intelligent and mysterious, and, since Deryn is undercover, allows us to see how women are treated in this era. Deryn is suspicious of “boffins”, scientists, and Alek’s sexism colors how he sees Dr. Barlow. Again, the way Westerfeld balances the sexism and the classism is really well done.

The pacing and action is top-notch, and superior to Uglies. The novel moves at a fairly steady pace, and switches perspectives between Deryn and Alek at fairly regular intervals. One of the best things about this is seeing “Dylan” through Alek’s eyes and then seeing Deryn’s perspective. There’s even a pair of chapters towards the end that does my favorite thing–they show the same short period of time from vastly different views.  Deryn, the swashbuckling soldier she is, weathers storms and battles and thinks very quickly on her feet, even using Alek as leverage at one point. There’s plenty of dangling from ropes attached to the Leviathan and leaping off the side for Deryn. Alek’s adventures deal more with piloting his war machine, a Storm Walker, stealthily through the night. However, Alek does gets to engage in a few thrilling battles of his own.

The illustrations are lush and gorgeous, and presented period appropriate, with the titles of the pieces in quotation marks near the bottom of the page. They’re also ridiculously useful when it comes to Clanker technology, which can be a bit difficult to construct from the descriptions. It also allows me to indulge in my love for military regalia. Alek’s gear is elegant and aristocratic, while Deryn’s is much more befitting a lowly midshipman, but has a certain British sharpness. Deryn herself looks quite sharp in the illustrations; much sharper than I saw her in my head. She tends to look like Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy more often than not. Alek, however, is just perfect.

Initially, my only problem was the slang Westerfeld uses, especially the word “plook”, which reminded me of bad science fiction–so imagine my surprise when I found out all the slang used is real and period appropriate! Truth really is stranger than fiction. It is short, being both part of a series and written for the younger spectrum of young adult fiction. I say this in the best possible way! It’s easy to get lost in, and it leaves you wanting more. The sequel, Behemoth, involves the Ottoman Empire! When was the last time you saw the Ottoman Empire in any speculative fiction? I cannot wait.

Bottom line: Its only flaw is leaving you wanting more of the same. Leviathan is a magnificent adventure set in a brilliantly executed steampunk World War I, with a dashing good male lead and the best underage and undercover lady soldier I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

I rented this book from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Review: Leviathan

  1. I love this premise – and props to Westerfeld for using proper period slang. I often struggle with sci-fi and fantasy that has to make up a lot of words in order to explain the world, but it doesn’t sound like he’s needed to do that.

  2. Ever since Scott Westerfeld started promoting this book, I’ve been so hooked on it! WW1, epic fantasy, sci-fi, what more could I ask for? I still haven’t read it, but am eagerly waiting for my copy!

    As for the slang, have you read his Pretties? I remember getting bogged by the slang in that one as well. I admire him for going to the extent of creating new customs for his characters, but I agree, some times it is distracting.

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