“Leviathan is different. If it poses a big question, that question would be, Wouldn’t it be cool if the First World War had been fought with genetically engineered mutant animals, against steam-powered walking machines like the ones from “The Empire Strikes Back”? And the answer is, Yes, it would.”
Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan takes place in an alternate pre-WWI Europe in which the Germans and Austrians are Clankers who favour steam-powered war-machines. Britain and its allies, meanwhile, are Darwinists who engineer hybrid creatures based on (alternative time-line alert) Darwin’s manipulations of DNA.
This makes it steampunk — so in Westerfeld’s words, it’s as much about possible futures as alternate pasts.
Alek is the would-be heir of recently poisoned Archduke Franz Ferdinand, fleeing his own would-be assassins in what amounts to a tank on legs and trying to avoid becoming the next causality in the war for the throne. He has a penchant for putting himself into stupid situations despite this, and for keeping the Walker he escapes in upright at least most of the time.
Deryn Sharp is a girl dressed as a boy who has recently joined the British Air Service and become a midshipman on the Leviathan, a gigantic floating whale-slash-air-ship-slash-ecosystem kept aloft primarily by internally produced hydrogen. She has a penchant for steering Huxleys, which are temperamental flying jellyfish, and for yelling “Barking spiders!” sporadically.
The entire set-up reeks of young-adult opportunities for self-discovery against the backdrop of a debate around technology versus monsters and “paths crossing in unexpected ways” and such. There’s something just a tad flat about most of the characters — though both Alek and Deryn are likeable and earnest, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to see more of Dawina — which is perhaps a nod to the intended YA audience. Additionally, the story gets just a bit bogged down with the specific details of monsters and machines and obscure synonyms for poo; but unlike Westerfeld’s Uglies series, which seemed to have created an entirely new language by the time it ended, Leviathan uses words that are just close enough to readers’ understandings that they maintain their authenticity.
Of course, the fast pace, gripping battles, casual cross-dressing, political intrigue and improbable technology more than make up for any perceived problems created by intended demographics. To top it all off,Leviathan features ink drawings by Keith Thompson in a Victorian-with-a-hint-of-manga style and they are captivating (see the map above for an example).
Best of all, it’s only the first in the series.
Simon Pulse, October 2006. 448 pages.