LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld, 448 pages, $ Prices vary at Amazon
Fifteen year old Prince Aleksandar of Austria-Hungary plays at war in the dark of his room. His small battle is waged on his desktop in miniature. Safe within the walls of the palace, he wonders about the future of his country, and the possibility that the game in front of him could soon become a reality. What he doesn’t know is that it already has. He is interrupted with news that will change his life forever.
Countries away in England, a teenage girl named Deryn peels her face from the book that she has been studying into the wee hours of the night. She’s about to take a flight test, and she knows this day is the most important of her life. Deryn has dreamed of being an Airman ever since she was a young girl, and therin lies the problem; Deryn is clearly not a man. She’s had to chop off her hair, and dons the clothes of a boy, in hopes of fooling The Service into letting her aboard an airship.
It is 1914 in pre-WWI Europe. In this fictional retelling of history, it is a time of highly advanced steam based technology, and biologically manipulated creatures. With its focus on a past augmented by advanced technologies, Leviathan is a novel that is the very definition of “Steampunk”.
In Alek’s homeland, citizens depend on high tech machinery like Walkers and Zeppelins to defend their people. Westerfeld refers to them as “Clankers”, one of his original terms used to describe the European Central powers. They believe machines are superior to nature.
Deryn is taking her air test dangling from a Beastie called a Huxley. It’s a man made creature not unlike a floating octopus with a seat midst its tentacles. She dreams of someday floating high in the clouds on a much larger Air Beast; to her surprise, that day is today. Deryn will risk her life and wind up on board the Leviathan, the largest and most notorious Beastie ever to take the skies. Only the English Darwinists could have built it, with their belief that nature contains all of the building blocks needed to create anything.
The ground and skies are filled with a potentially combustible tension, waiting for the one spark that will light the whole of Europe on fire. And the fateful moment arrives when both characters find their lives thrown out of orbit and into a collision course with each other. Each has a secret that if revealed could put their lives in danger, and with Alek’s compassion and Deryn’s fearlessness, their worlds finally collide.
“Leviathan” is a world bursting with imagination, colorful vocabulary and clever inventions. Westerfeld’s creativity will have the reader looking up words like “boffin” (a scientist) and “Clart” (mud,mire and filth) and other words which give a whole new twist on potty mouth.
As well written as “Leviathan” is, its action moves forward with characters who lack emotional depth. Bonding with these characters is at times difficult leaving the novel a little lacking in heart. Also the dangers of the story seem somewhat nebulous and could have been strengthened perhaps with a central villain who might have created a greater sense of menace.
“Leviathan” is given an extra lift with Keith Thompson’s stunning illustrations. His black and white drawings are to be savored and studied for visual clues about Westerfeld’s Steampunk world. This novel will settle well in the hands of any reader regardless of age, its pages begging to be turned and savored at the same time. The reader will be unhappy that this book comes to an end, but elated to discover that there is a second book in this series, “Behemoth” which this reviewer looks forward to reading. I give this book 4 Stars out of a possible 5 Stars.
Reviewed by Laura Bird