Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
Words cannot describe how much I love Deryn Sharp. (Not like that, she’s underage.) The female lead of Leviathan is a smart and, well, sharp, Scottish soldier with plenty of swagger–and did I mention she’s undercover as a boy to serve her country? As much as I enjoyed the alternate history steampunk stylings of Leviathan, including the remixing of political struggles, Deryn has fast become one of my favorite fictional characters. Once I finished Leviathan, I immediately put down Behemoth on my reading list. And now it looks like Goliath is going directly on my reading list, too.
Behemoth picks up where Leviathan left off. In an alternate World War I where countries are divided by technology (the Darwinists manipulate DNA to create living airships and other animals and the Clankers rely on machines), Prince Aleksandar, fugitive heir to the Clanker Austria-Hungarian Empire, is now on board the living airship Leviathan, in the hands of the Darwinist British. Despite the fact that their countries are at war, Deryn and Alek have become friends. However, the Leviathan is now headed to Istanbul to force the hand of the neutral Sultan–but the Clanker Germans have gotten there first. As Alek seeks a way to parlay his status into a way to end this war, the two find themselves the only hope for a diplomatic mission gone horribly wrong.
Like Leviathan before it, Behemoth is a swift read; I knocked it out in a morning. Most of that is due to Westerfeld’s lively, clear writing and the fact that, while obviously young adult, it feels like it’s written for the younger end of that spectrum. But the politics and the religions aren’t dumbed down in any sense. After encountering a fairly divided Europe in Leviathan, Istanbul is a interesting breath of fresh air–while it’s definitely a Clanker city, they recognize and nod to the importance of Darwinism. This blending pops up in the series’ first American character, Malone; we learn that America uses both technologies however they see fit in an aside. Behemoth plays wonderfully with its history, and Westerfeld provides an author’s note to show what was real and what was invented; wonderfully, several of the airships, including the stolen Osman that leads to the Ottoman Empire’s distaste for Churchill, have real-world counterparts. Religion plays a large part in this series, as more religious states are Clankers and less religious states are Darwinists (several characters refer to the “godless Darwinists”), but we finally see religions outside of Christianity at play here–tantalizingly, the Jewish golem is turned into a machine that protects the Jewish parts of Istanbul. In Leviathan, Westerfeld created an interesting and thoughtful steampunk world; it’s wonderful to see it expanded upon in Behemoth. (It’ll expand even more in Goliath, the last installment, when the Leviathan heads to Tokyo.)
Again, like Leviathan, the action is top-notch; the book kicks off with an encounter with German ships bearing the Tesla cannon, which turns the tables on traditional airship and navy combat. While Deryn spends her time on secret missions and diplomacy (which she’s none too happy about), Alek escapes the Leviathan (he’s technically a prisoner of war, being Austrian) and spends his time on the run, allying with anarchists in an attempt to end the war by toppling the Sultan. (He’s a busy kid!) Structurally, it succeeds admirably as an installment in the series; the climactic battle is huge (as it ought to be when you’re dealing with giant mechs; perhaps this is a series Gundam fans can enjoy) and the plot obstacle of the Ottoman Empire is completely dealt with, and not entirely by the Europeans–Alek’s anarchists play a massive role in it, as well they should.
Deryn and Alek continue to grow as characters in Behemoth. Classist Alek begins to recognize his own privilege, but his period-appropriate sexism comes out when he meets Lilit, the impressively bloodthirsty and technologically gifted daughter of an anarchist he ends up allying with. Deryn gets a promotion and goes out with her first command, which ends horribly; while still a soldier at heart, she begins considering Alek when she considers what she ought to do next. I really enjoyed their relationship here. Alek’s hero worship of “Dylan” continues to grow, and the two confide in each other more and more. Deryn comes to term with her attraction to Alek, and, wonderfully, treats their getting together once she reveals herself as a foregone conclusion–instead, she’s more concerned about the fact that she’s a commoner and Alek is most certainly not. And her relationship with Alek isn’t her first concern; her allegiance is to her ship and to Great Britain. As you may have guessed already, Deryn, Lilit, and Alek end up in a love triangle, but not exactly the way you think. As a huge fan of Deryn, I enjoyed Behemoth; I can’t wait for Goliath, to see what’ll happen once (and if!) Deryn reveals her secret.
Bottom line: A worthy second installment in the Leviathan trilogy, with top-notch action, an expanded world, and, of course, more of the fantastic Deryn Sharp. Great fun.
I bought this book from a local independent bookseller.