Book review: Scott Westerfeld’s “Leviathan”

Busy day today, paying bills and the like. Later tonight I will be meeting up with friends from the Philippine Tolkien Society, so I thought about putting up my review of “Leviathan” that got published about a year ago because I may not be able to write later on today.

I’m currently re-reading this YA steampunk novel by Scott Westerfeld to bone up for “Behemoth“, the review for which I hope to have up by Sunday afternoon or Monday morning.

Scott Westerfeld is best known as the man behind the popular “Uglies” young adult series — a science fiction trilogy set in a dystopian world where teenagers are turned “pretty” once they turn 16. That series was a runaway hit, named by the American Library Association as one of the Best Books for Young Adults in 2006 and has even been optioned to become a film set to be released next year.

Westerfeld is hoping that lightning strikes twice with “Leviathan”, a young adult novel set in Europe during the First World War. Rather than fight with guns and tanks, the nations engaged in combat battle it out using “fabricated” beasts and war machines that run on steam and oil.

The year is 1914, and the great powers of Europe are ready to go to war against each other over the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austrians and their German allies are loading their Clanker machines with guns and ammunition, while the British and their allies are readying their “fabricated” beasts, mutant animals developed through the research of the scientist Charles Darwin.

In the midst of all these military and political maneuvering is Aleksandar Ferdinand and Deryn Sharp, two teenagers from different backgrounds who find themselves involved in the events of the Great War. Aleksandar — Alek, for short — is the only son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and is on the run to Switzerland to escape the German forces intent on killing him. Deryn, on the other hand, is a Scottish girl masquerading as a boy so she can serve in the British Royal Air Navy’s jewel, the whale airship Leviathan. The Leviathan is on an important mission — to bring a mysterious fabricated creature to the Ottoman Empire.

When the Leviathan is forced to make a landing in the Swiss Alps because of a German aerial attack, Deryn and Alek’s worlds collide, along with their prejudices about each other’s countries and beliefs. Will the pair manage to settle their differences and work together to survive the coming conflict? Or will their prejudices prove too difficult to overcome?

In “Leviathan”, Westerfeld dives into a subgenre of science fiction called “steampunk,” which involves real technological developments happening at an earlier date, mostly during the Victorian or Edwardian eras. It is quite different from the dystopian future of the “Uglies”, but Westerfeld makes the transition from the future to the past with flying colors.

With this book, Westerfeld succeeds in building a perfectly believable world where steam-driven robots and six-legged hydrogen-sniffing dogs are the norm. Readers are caught in the grip of his fascinating world from the very moment Alek and his loyal crew escape in the middle of the night aboard a Stormwalker, and the fast pace with which he moves the plot along makes sure that the readers attention never strays.

The action never lags throughout the book either, as there is almost always a chase or battle going on. The chapter where a group of German airplanes attack the Leviathan is an exhilarating read as the whale airship strikes back with an inventive arsenal of weapons, ranging from hawks armed with venomous nets to bats equipped with iron flechettes.

It also doesn’t hurt that Westerfeld is helped immensely by the illustrations of Keith Thompson, 50 of which are spread throughout the book. Visually arresting and incredibly detailed, the illustrations make it even easier for the readers to suspend their disbelief and lose themselves in this alternate version of the First World War.

Westerfeld also has to be commended for how he deftly balances historical fact with his fantasy world. History buffs will immediately notice how closely the book follows the actual course of events that lead to the start of the war, but it is not so faithful as to distract from the story Westerfeld is trying to tell.

But perhaps Westerfeld’s greatest accomplishment is with the characters that he populates this world with, especially its two teen protagonists who succeed in giving an extra oomph to what is already an engrossing story.

Alek undergoes a transformation as the novel progresses, from being a snobby aristocrat to a young man slowly realizing that the world is so much bigger than the walls of the palace he lives in. One scene in particular succeeds in portraying this without too much melodrama: When Alek is tasked to buy a newspaper in a street market, he realizes that he is able to speak a variety of languages fluently, but not the street slang of his own people.

But it is Deryn who emerges as the star of the show. Feisty, skilled, and resourceful, here is a teenage heroine bound to inspire young girls all over. Unafraid to plunge into battle and take risks for the people she cares for, Deryn is head and shoulders above some of the men she works with in the Leviathan.

With its smart blend of historical fact and science fiction, the amazing beasts and machines that populate it, as well as its charismatic protagonists, “Leviathan” is bound to enthrall readers looking for an exciting read.

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