Anytime a new Scott Westerfeld novel hits the shelves, it is cause for buzz and celebration. His Uglies series is wildly popular, he continually hits the best seller lists and is a terrific writer. Couple Westerfeld’s popularity / writing skill with the burgeoning popularity of the Steampunk genre, then in Leviathan, you’ve got a sure-fire hit.
Leviathan is set in a 20th Century that is mostly familiar – Archduke Franz Ferdinand is murdered and World War I begins. The definition of mostly in Leviathan is multi-layered. The first of which is that Ferdinand had a son named Alek who survived and escaped the night of his parents’ murder inside a giant walking tank with a retinue of loyalists. In the real world Ferdinand of course did not have a son named Alek. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans, for their reliance on mechanical technology like the walking machines that resemble giant robots, are known as Clankers. There were, of course, no walking robot-like tanks in existence during the time in which the book takes place.
Of course this technology was not quite as advanced in 1914 of our world as it is in the world of Leviathan. Westerfled’s descriptions were enough to give hints and really put me in the seat with Alek as he piloted his walking tank across the European landscape. Furthermore, Alek is genuine in that while he is somewhat oblivious to world events and headstrong, Westerfeld doesn’t make him a complete idiot. The balancing act can be tough to manage with the typical orphaned heir and Westerfeld pulled it off exceedingly well – I liked Alek, I felt for his plight, and I found myself rooting for him throughout the story.
In contrast to the mechanical technology employed by the German/Austrians, the British/Allied Powers utilize biological technology in nearly all aspects of warfare. The British are also known as Darwinists – for Charles Darwin who discovered DNA in Westerfeld’s imagined world. The British extrapolated this discovery to DNA-manipulation, genetically engineering creatures including the titular Leviathan which is a floating whale and Britain’s most powerful and recognizable airship. Other creatures include six-legged ‘sniffers’ or bloated jellyfish which are essentially personal air balloons. While Alek gives the young perspective on the Austrian side of the conflict, on the British side, young Deryn Sharp disguises herself as a boy so she can join the British Air Service. Deryn’s father served in the British Armed forces and she wishes to follow in his footsteps. However, girls are precluded from joining so she must go in disguise. Her early scenes in training are held together very well, especially when she takes flight in a runaway jellyfish-balloon.
So, there are a lot of dichotomies in this novel and world – mechanized technology v. biological technology; boy protagonist v. girl protagonist; Allied Powers v. the Central Powers. The technology conflict is presented in a very engaging manner, with the Clankers showing revulsion at the manipulated life forms, while the Darwinists think the Clankers some kinds of heretics for their devotion to mechanized technology.
Fortunately, Westerfeld populates his world and this novel in particular with fully realized supporting characters – Alek’s retinue including the Count Volger as well as the mysterious Dawinia, who turns out to be Charles Darwin’s granddaughter. It is this character who might come across as the most flippant, at least initially. As the story evolves, so does her character and the mystery behind her true purpose which seems to lead directly into the next volume of the trilogy. One might say it is a cliffhanger of an ending, because of the big tease Westerfeld give the readers. On the other hand, Leviathan is effective in setting up the world, giving good character development and providing a small sense of closure.
In the end, Scott Westerfeld does a lot of the things with this novel that have rightfully earned him the reputation of a great storyteller. He skillfully weaves Deryn and Alek’s stories towards their eventually meeting, keeping tension high throughout. He surrounds the main characters with a great supporting cast and he puts all of these people in a fascinating world with a great conflict that is a great mix of familiar and refreshingly new. Leviathan is only the opening novel of a series, so the ending is just a beginning and in that, Westerfeld leaves me wanting more. With classy and evocative illustrations by Keith Thompson, Leviathan is highly recommended.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford