Book review: Scott Westerfeld’s “Goliath”

Way back in early 2009, I pretty much didn’t care for Scott Westerfeld or any of his work. I knew of the “Uglies” series, but didn’t really have any desire to pick the books up and add them on my shelf.

It was only in October of 2009 that I became one of the Westerfeld faithful. I had picked up “Leviathan”, piqued by its steampunk cover and the snippet of conversation between Prince Aleksandar of Hohenberg and Count Volger that was printed on its back cover. I read it, gushed about it here, and when “Behemoth” came out, I gushed even more.

And I’m not the only one doing it either. Three years since it first began, Scott Westerfeld’s tale of steam-powered war machines and “fabricated” beasts have won over critics and readers alike. The School Library Journal declared that the “Leviathan” series is “sure to become a classic”; “Leviathan” was even awarded the 2010 Locus Award for Best Young Adult Fiction. Readers haven’t been remiss in showing their appreciation as well, as both “Leviathan” and “Behemoth” have enjoyed stints on the New York Times Bestseller lists.

The series now draws to a close with the publication of “Goliath”. Will this final installment of an excellent series bring the story to a satisfying close? Or will it flounder under the expectations set by the first two books in the trilogy?

At the end of “Behemoth”, protagonists Deryn Sharp and Prince Aleksandar of Hohenberg have successfully toppled the Clanker-leaning ruler of the Ottoman Empire, paving the way for the establishment of a democratic republic and further depriving Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire of allies they can turn to. But while that may have been a significant blow against their enemies, Deryn and Alek’s troubles are far from over.

While heading towards Japan to help break the German blockade of Tokyo, the crew of the Leviathan receives a mysterious message from the Russian Czar requesting the delivery of supplies to a Siberian outpost. While the sovereign’s request is curious enough as it is, the crew of the Leviathan find an even stranger situation when they reach their destination in Siberia — an inventor who claims that he has a weapon than can stop the war.

Deryn and Alek also find things becoming more complicated between them as well. For months, Dylan has been keeping two big secrets from Alek: that she is actually a girl and that she has begun to fall in love with him. But during the course of their mission Alek finds out about both Deryn’s secrets, and their friendship gets thrown for a loop.

Now more than ever, the fate of the world hangs heavily on Alek’s shoulders. Should he put his trust in the hands of a possibly unhinged scientist with a weapon that could kill millions? And should Alek put his throne on the line for a chance at love with Deryn, a mere commoner?

If there’s anything that the previous books in the “Leviathan” series have made abundantly clear, it is the fact that for victory and peace to be achieved, both Darwinist and Clanker powers need to work together. Since being outfitted with Clanker engines, the Leviathan’s reputation as the most fearsome airship in the world has only been enhanced. This theme is even more pronounced in “Goliath”, as the Leviathan makes its way to Russia and beyond, encountering the mixed Clanker-Darwinist cultures of Japan and the United States.

But aside from expounding on his theme of cooperation, these new countries also provide Westerfeld with a perfect opportunity to work in even more fascinating historical figures into his fictional narrative. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst makes an appearance, as well as famous Hearst reporter Adela Rogers St. John. Famous Mexican revolutionary and film star Pancho Villa clocks in some time, as well as Japanese industrialist Sakichi Toyoda.

Westerfeld’s storytelling, however, isn’t lost in the press of all these new characters. He still manages to keep the story engaging and interesting, even as the conflict moves from the greater theater of war to the more intimate interactions between Deryn and Alek. It is here that the foundation laid by Westerfeld in “Leviathan” and “Behemoth” finally bear fruit; by drawing out and solidly developing the friendship between the two it is now easy for Westerfeld’s readers to be invested in the future of Alek and Deryn’s relationship.

And what an interesting relationship it is! From the very beginning the pair has been far from conventional — Deryn is a cross-dressing girl who is a better soldier than most of her male colleagues; Alek is a prince thoroughly emasculated in the real world, only slowly coming into his own over the course of two books. The fact that Deryn’s secret is finally revealed doesn’t change things, as the gender roles still remain consistently reversed.

Deryn is less concerned about the possibility of a romantic relationship with Alek as she is about being thought of as a lesser soldier now that Alek knows she is a girl. The fact that this is what they fight about is a refreshing break from how these things usually proceed in a young adult novel. When things improve between the two of them, it is still Deryn who is the stronger presence. She is the one who saves the prince in distress, the one who kisses him first, and it is Alek who is left longing for her.

Westerfeld also doesn’t make Alek and Deryn more than they are. While the pair often find themselves being the catalyst that lead to important events happening, they don’t actually end up being the main players in the greater scheme of things. The young heroes are still subject to the whims of people more powerful than they are, and this touch of realism makes it easier for readers to suspend their disbelief in the face of the many fantastic things that happen in the book.

Also, because it would be unfair not to comment on it, Keith Thompson’s illustrations continue to provide the perfect complement to Westerfeld’s vividly imagined world. Here, have a sampling!

While “Goliath” isn’t as perfect as I would have wanted it — some of the new characters seem to be there only because Westerfeld wanted them there, not because they exponentially improved the story — it is still a great closing chapter to an equally great series.

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