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Scott Westerfeld – Leviathan

December 14, 2009

145. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (2009)
Leviathan, Book 1

Read By: Alan Cumming
Length: 8h 15m (448 pages)

Genre: Alternate Historical Fiction, Sci-Fi, Steampunk

Started: 30 November 2009
Finished: 03 December 2009

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? While I haven’t loved absolutely everything Scott Westerfeld’s written, I’ve really enjoyed enough of it that his new books will get read as a matter of course.

I bet none of your
war stories involve a huge
flying whale, do they?

On a related tip, when Fantasia 2000 came out, I saw it opening night in IMAX. During the Pines of Rome piece, a little kid – maybe 3 or 4 – who was sitting right in front of us and had otherwise been very well-behaved, busted out with a very loud, very emphatic “Mommy! Whales. Do. Not. FLY!” That kid’s probably 13 or so nowadays… I wonder how he’d feel about this book?

Summary: Leviathan tells the story of two young people on the eve of World War One. Deryn is a girl, and thus barred from military service, but she’s pretending to be a boy in order to join the British Air Force. However, the Air Force is not just Sopwiths, not by a long shot. In Westerfeld’s version of history, Darwin discovered not only the theory of evolution by natural selection, but also DNA, and since his time his followers have been building new life forms from the building blocks of others. The largest is the Leviathan, a giant zeppellin-like airship modeled on a whale (as well as a host of other creatures), and a more prestigious service assignment than a young midshipman could dare to hope for.

The other storyline follows Prince Alek of Austria-Hungary. When his parents are assassinated, he is hustled out of the castle by Count Volger, his father’s longtime advisor. In an instant, Alek has become an important pawn in a game of political maneuvering that he did not realize he even belonged to, and to escape to safety, they must flee unnoticed in a Walker – a mechanized battle robot.

Alek and Deryn’s stories intersect when the Leviathan is shot down near Alek’s hideout in Switzerland. Although the Darwinists and the Clankers are typically enemies, the two must become unlikely allies if either of them are to survive.

Review: Steampunk is not normally my cup of tea. Conceptually, I think it’s neat, and visually, steampunk-inspired stuff is typically gorgeous, but as a genre, it’s never done much to crank my gears. (Terrible pun fully intended.) So I was a little bit wary of Leviathan at the outset, but since Westerfeld’s generally pretty reliable, I decided to give it a go.

And I’m really glad I did. I quite enjoyed Leviathan; maybe because of Westerfeld’s skill at telling interesting stories with likable characters; maybe because it’s not in-your-face about its steampunkiness, and thus it reads more like historical fiction; maybe because I am a huge sucker for any time an author can sneak some biology into their fiction (see also: Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, and Westerfeld’s own Peeps.) I had a great time listening for all of the little history of science references that Westerfeld snuck in throughout the book, and got to feel briefly smug every time I caught one.

Actually, Westerfeld managed to hit two of my buttons: not only am I a sucker for biology in fiction, I also really like the “girl disguises herself as a boy to enter military service” plot device (see also: Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet, and L. A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack series.) Both Deryn and Alek were interesting and well-developed characters, and although I spent early chapters wanting to kick Alek in the shins and tell him to stop being such a moron, he’s at least got a believable excuse for his naivete.

I also enjoyed the setting; I haven’t read nearly as much fiction set in World War I as in World War II. Westerfeld helpfully includes an author’s note that lays out what parts of his story are true, what parts are based on truth but modified to fit his alternate world, and what parts were made up for the sake of the story.

Throughout the book, the action moves along at a good clip, managing to work the details and descriptive world-building into the story without slowing down the flow of the narrative. I was never totally emotionally involved in the story, but I was always interested, with the result that I tore through the audiobook much faster than normal. The ending was kind of abrupt – nothing is resolved, but the characters get to a temporary bit of safety and then the book just ends. I can see why the break was made where it was, but it’s still a little annoying – I would have definitely picked up the next book anyways, so the cliffhanger feels like a bit of overkill. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It’s hard to recommend a book to others when I’m still surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did. Fans of steampunk or alternate history, or entertaining young adult novels with fast-moving adventure storylines will for sure want to pick this up. Otherwise, it sits at this strange boundary between sci-fi and historical fiction, and folks who are fans of one but not the other may find the crossover either really intriguing, or they may find it thoroughly annoying. I’m one of the former, happily, but I suspect reactions will vary.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Bermudaonion’s Weblog, Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog, A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy, Fantasy Book Critic, The Infinite Shelf, Karin’s Book Nook, My Favourite Books, Necromancy Never Pays, Neth Space, Stella Matutina, The Written World
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised.

Cover Thoughts: Eh. It’s really well-designed and interesting looking, and I like that it gives the impression of the interplay between the mechanical and the organic vessels of war. On the other hand, it’s a lot more aggressively steampunk than I think the book actually is. It’s all “Gears! Look at my gears! GEARS!”, which is not the impression I got from the actual story at all.

29 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2009 2:53 am

    So far I have only heard good things about this book. I have been on a real Westerfeld kick lately so I really hope that I can get my hands on Leviathan soon. By your description it really sounds like something that I would enjoy. Thanks for the great review!

    • December 15, 2009 9:08 am

      Terra – I hope that your Westerfeld kick keeps going strong! He’s got a lot of really great books out there.

  2. December 14, 2009 7:55 am

    I’m glad you found this something new to enjoy; that’s always fun. My daughter reacted to this one much as you do; she loved it and doesn’t mind waiting for the second one to come out.

    • December 15, 2009 9:09 am

      Jeanne – I haven’t heard any word on the predicted date of book 2, but then, I haven’t gone looking for it yet, either.

  3. Johanna permalink
    December 14, 2009 8:39 am

    I’ve been wondering about this book, since its cover has been drawing my eye every time I see it. I just love the cover design.

    Now that you say you’ve enjoyed the story, I’m definitely purchasing it. This sounds like a book both I and my son (a 13-year old) can enjoy. So, he’s getting this for Christmas (and since I’ll be borrowing it, it’s like I’m gifting myself as well. Hee, hee!).

    • December 15, 2009 9:10 am

      Johanna – Very sneaky! I hope you and your son both enjoy it.

  4. December 14, 2009 8:49 am

    Thanks for including my link. I haven’t read this yet, but my husband enjoyed it, even though he said it was a little slow at the beginning.

    • December 15, 2009 9:10 am

      bermudaonion – I wouldn’t have said it was slow, exactly, but it did seem to take a long time before the two storylines intersected, as it was obvious they were going to.

  5. December 14, 2009 9:17 am

    I’ve had trouble with steampunk in the past, and I didn’t love Uglies when I started it last month. I want to love steampunk though! I’m going to put a hold on this at the library…

    • December 15, 2009 9:11 am

      Jenny – Westerfeld’s got such a diverse catalog – dystopian, high-tech adult spaceship sci-fi, horror/fantasy, now alternate history – hopefully there’ll be something in there that you like. :)

  6. December 15, 2009 12:10 am

    I loved that one too, and I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I like steampunk although I’m not that familiar with the genre, and it felt new enough to me. Can’t wait for the next book!

    • December 15, 2009 1:33 pm

      Kay – Now that you mention it, I can’t think of many other steampunk novels that I’ve read, but somehow I still have a sense of not being crazy about the genre.

  7. December 15, 2009 12:03 pm

    Thanks! You tipped me over when you said the steampunkiness wasn’t in your face, and it read like historical fiction. This sounds like it’s going to be our winning Christmas vacation read-aloud, like Peeps was a few years ago. I was really disappointed by a couple of Westerfield’s more recent books. They seemed complacent and a bit (hate to say it) lazy. I share your experience with steampunk, but I think my relationship with Scott Westerfield’s books is even more love-hate.

    • December 15, 2009 1:33 pm

      Trapunto – I hope this one works out for you as well as Peeps!

  8. December 15, 2009 5:32 pm

    This is not a book I would generally want to read, but for whatever reason I am really looking forward to it!

    • December 15, 2009 10:18 pm

      Lola – It’s always a little bit nervewracking to step away from your comfort zone, but I hope it works out for you!

  9. December 15, 2009 10:13 pm

    Two of my students are telling me I have to read this. One said “It’s steampunk like The Golden Compass is steampunk”.

    • December 15, 2009 10:19 pm

      Gavin – I would never have thought to call The Golden Compass steampunk, but I can see how it would be, and your student is totally right to make the comparison.

  10. December 16, 2009 7:19 pm

    I totally enjoyed Leviathan too, and am highly recommending it to everyone I know, young or old.

    I was pleased as punch when Scott re-tweeted my review!

  11. December 18, 2009 12:22 pm

    I’ve been holding out, waiting to read this book because I wasn’t sure if it would appeal to me. I have found that some steampunk has elements of the paranormal, and I really don’t like that. This book sounds like it is completely different. Your review has finally helped me decide to officially add this one to my wish list.

    • December 26, 2009 4:37 pm

      Alyce – Nope, no paranormal thus far, although I think some of the genetic engineering they do is a little far out there. :)

  12. December 19, 2009 6:46 am

    I’ve just finished this one, and loved it. And hopefully I may even get my review written and posted before Christmas!

    • December 26, 2009 4:38 pm

      Bart – Ah, the eternal review backlog! I’m bound and determined to get caught up by New Years. :)


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