Scott Westerfeld is perhaps currently best known for his YA SF novels. He recently decided to try his hand at Steampunk in an alternate version of World War I. LEVIATHAN is a good entry into the genre, but it isn’t without drawbacks (depending on your point of view, of course).
LEVIATHAN follows the PoV of Alek, the son of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand (in case you didn’t know before, now you know where the band gets its name–that’s your useless piece of trivia for the day). In Westerfeld’s story, the assassination of the Archduke and his wife incites World War I, just like in actual history. This differences are the Steampunk and Biopunk (this term will make more sense in a moment) settings. The two major factions are the Clankers (the Austrians, Germans and such), and the Darwinists (England and other “Allies”). The Clankers are based in machinery, and lend to the Steampunk stylings that the book promotes. The Darwinists, frankly, are much cooler. They manipulate biological creatures into war machines, ships, and anything else they have need of. As a counterpoint to young Alek’s “Clanker” PoV, we have the PoV of Deryn Sharp. She is a fifteen year-old girl posing as a boy in the British Air Service aboard the Leviathan–a huge biologically created ship that resembles a flying whale.
The PoVs are both entertaining, if a bit juvenile. We had it in our minds that LEVIATHAN would be geared (no Steampunk pun intended) to the older end of YA. In reality, it is towards the younger end. Once we understood this small piece of info, any measure of initial disappointment faded quickly away. The characters, especially Deryn, won us over quickly. As we follow Alek’s escape from Austria in his Stormwalker (think of it as a Steampunk Mechwarrior), and as we follow Deryn’s adventures on the Leviathan, we are treated to a very imaginative, uh, re-imagining of WWI, and how the paths that Alek and Deryn each follow inevitably merge.
Where LEVIATHAN really shines is in the Steampunk and Biopunk elements. The way Westerfeld imagines warfare in this setting is nothing short of fabulous. The Steampunk in the novel is actually fairly light, with most of the focus on the Biopunk. Some may argue that this is bad, while others rejoice in it. We wish that we could have seen a bit more of the Steampunk area of the world, but we aren’t terribly upset about the lack of it. The Darwinist ideas in the novel more than made up for the lack of more machinery.
Ultimately, the thing that most disappointed us was discovering it was a series. The next novel, BEHEMOTH, won’t be released until Oct. 2010. Considering how quick of a read this novel is–the pacing is terrific, we should add–waiting another year for the sequel seems a long way off.
However, is it worth the $20 price tag? Oh yes. Allow us to gush with regards to the beauty of the book itself. Just seeing the cover in person made us both drool a little. It is one of the best designed covers to come out this year. It hints at a stronger Steampunk element than is really in the novel, but it is a stunning cover regardless. There are dozens of internal illustrations by Keith Thompson that give a fantastic visual aid for the beasties and machines described in the book. The production quality of this book is top-notch.
LEVIATHAN is a good book. Not incredible, but good. We liked it. We fully intend on reading the sequels, and buying them assuming they look as awesome as the first novel. LEVIATHAN is marketed towards a younger crowd, and serves as a good intro into the Steampunk genre. We still think that Philip Reeve’s MORTAL ENGINES is a better introduction into Steampunk at the YA level, but Westerfeld has done a fantastic job. Let’s face it, Steampunk is a genre that more people should be reading, and it is typically a pretty safe genre content-wise. Go out and pick up LEVIATHAN. You’ll enjoy it, and it will make you want to read more Steampunk.
Recommended Age: 12 and up.
Violence: There is some, but it isn’t a focal-point.
Sex: Don’t be absurd.
So check out Westerfeld’s website. He doesn’t exactly need any help from us, but every author likes to hear they’ve done a good job.
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