Scott Westerfeld – Leviathan
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.
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.