Book review: Scott Westerfeld’s “Behemoth”

I know, I know. I’ve been remiss with my  blogging duties, and so early in the game as well. But it’s been a mostly crazy few days at work and with my personal life and I haven’t been able to spare some time for the old book blog.

I did, however, have time to do some book shopping.

As most of you guys know, Brian Katcher’s “Almost Perfect” won this year’s Stonewall’s Children and Young Adult Literature Award, so finding it on the local bookshelves was a pretty good signal for me to buy it. I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing what the buzz is about.

I also got myself a copy of Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower“. I’ve heard about this book countless times from so many people, and I’ve been seeing it on bookshelves for about as long. But I’ve never really found a cover that I really liked as much as this one. And this copy’s cheaper than the other editions!

But the most important thing I did the past week was finally finish reading Scott Westerfeld’s “Behemoth“, the second book in his “Leviathan” series.


When Scott Westerfeld’s “Leviathan” first broke into the scene in 2009, it certainly did so with a splash.

A tale set in an alternate World War I Europe – where Darwinist Britain’s “fabricated” creatures do battle against Clanker Germany’s steam-powered machines – “Leviathan” was roundly praised by critics who labeled it an “instant classic”. It rocketed up the New York Times Bestseller List and was given the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Fiction.

Westerfeld returns to this world of beasts and machines in “Behemoth”, continuing the adventures of midshipman Deryn Sharp and Prince Alek Ferdinand aboard the British Royal Air Navy’s prized whale airship, the Leviathan. Does “Behemoth” live up to the success of its predecessor? Or will Westerfeld be suffering from a case of sophomore slump?

When readers last left Deryn and Alek, the pair barely managed to escape the German force sent to capture the Leviathan, which had found itself stranded on the Alps after an aerial assault from German warplanes. Now powered by Clanker engines, the Leviathan is finally in the city of Istanbul bearing its mysterious fabricated cargo.

But things are much direr than the crew of the Leviathan expect when they land in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, as German forces are already deeply entrenched in the empire’s political structure. When the British Darwinists find their gift rejected by the Ottoman emperor, it becomes clear that a more forceful solution is needed.

In the midst of all this diplomatic maneuvering, Deryn and Alek find their friendship growing even deeper. Deryn – who is still masquerading as a boy on the Leviathan – even thinks that she may be in love with Alek. But when political developments and their own loyalties drive them away from each other and the safety of the Leviathan, will they still be able to push through and find each other in the teeming masses of Istanbul?

In “Leviathan”, Westerfeld provided an exciting introduction to this fascinating alternate world of Clankers and Darwinists. He gave us intriguing characters in the forms of Dr. Nora Barlow and Count Volger, and created two spectacular leads in Deryn and Alek. On top of all that, it had a quick-moving plot and well-crafted action sequences. That alone would have been enough.

But in “Behemoth”, Westerfeld takes these winning ingredients and expands upon them, bringing them to even greater heights. The stakes are higher and the action is more intense in this second volume of the planned “Leviathan” trilogy.

Readers who were enthralled by the complexity of the living airship, Leviathan, will find themselves doubly impressed with how Westerfeld brings to life the swarming Clanker city of Istanbul. With its exotic people and even more exotic Clanker machines designed to look like elephants and symbols of the varied races that live in the city, Istanbul is as alive as the delicate ecosystem of the Leviathan.

The action still moves at a breakneck pace, even if it mostly consists of political scheming on both Darwinist and Clanker sides of the conflict. Besides, readers looking for a more physical confrontation will be amply rewarded in the last few chapters of the book, wherein Westerfeld stages a climactic battle between Istanbul’s gigantic mechanical walkers.

Even Kevin Thompson’s stunning illustrations, which provided a gorgeous complement to Westerfeld’s prose in “Leviathan”, seem to have been upgraded for this book. A lot of Thompson’s drawings are spread across two pages now, and perceptive readers will find in these incredibly detailed illustrations clues as to where the action is headed even before Westerfeld’s words reveal them.

Keith Thompson's Istanbul

New additions to the cast of characters also bring a fresh infusion of energy to the proceedings. While old favorites like Dr. Nora Barlow and Count Volger are still around, readers will surely delight in new characters like the “perfectly vulgar” American journalist Eddie Malone and in Lilit, a feisty Armenian girl who can do everything Deryn can, and all without having to pretend to be a boy. The complication that she brings into the relationship between Deryn and Alek are sure to give readers a few laughs.

Just as in “Leviathan”, Alek and Deryn are the strongest assets of “Behemoth”. The characters do not remain static in “Behemoth” as Westerfeld is not afraid to subject his heroes to failure and disappointment.

Alek, who by the end of “Leviathan” begins to gain the confidence needed for him to become a great ruler, once again finds his self shaken when he is separated from the guiding presence of Count Volger. In Westerfeld’s capable hands, this setback becomes an opportunity for Alek’s character to grow. Rather than cower before adversity, Alek rises to the occasion and starts a pivotal chain of events that could considerably tilt the balance of power in Europe.

Deryn becomes even more interesting in this installment, as the once unflappable midshipman now realizes that she may actually be in love with the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Rather than take the easy way out and have Deryn turn into yet another lovestruck teenager ready to throw away everything for the boy she loves, Westerfeld stays true to the character and has her thresh out the conflicting interests of her country and her heart, with no easy answer reached at the end of the book.

“Behemoth” is indeed an excellent follow up to “Leviathan”, and proves that Westerfeld once again has a winning series in his hands. Perhaps the only complaint one can make now is that it will take yet another year before “Goliath”, the concluding book in the “Leviathan” trilogy, will arrive.

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