Sunday, 8 November 2009

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. The Leviathan is a living airship, the most formidable airbeast in the skies of Europe.

Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men. Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She's a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

With the Great War brewing, Alek's and Deryn's paths cross in the most unexpected way, taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever.

OK..... a whole week since I last posted but a sudden Ofsted inspection reduced my reading time significantly this week. Having started this book last Sunday night (I always read before turning the light off at night, and have done for as long as I can remember) I then put it aside for a few days as I  wanted to give it quality reading time - it really is the sort of book you just don't want to put down. When I did finally have the time to read it I managed to have enough spare time to finish it in one sitting and I honestly didn't want it to end - in the words of Kate Bush...... Wow! And I will say that again..... Wow!! What a story!

In my opinion this book is one of the finest examples of steampunk fiction for boys that I have come across. Steampunk is a genre that is becoming increasingly popular in the fiction world and throughout other areas of popular culture, but many of the best examples have so far been written for the adult market. I won't go into detail about what steampunk is - a simple google of the word will give you more than 2 million hits - but for a great introduction to the steampunk genre in fiction look no further than this great blog post by the very talented Alexandra Shostak.

Most steampunk stories are set in Victorian times, but despite this story being set during the the early days of the First World War all the elements of a typical steampunk story are there: alternate history; technology and machines that are very much out of their time; societies with opposing views on the ethics of their different technologies; airships; and action and adventure in abundance.

My favourite element of this story is Scott Westerfeld's creation of Darwinist technology; in this story Charles Darwin has not only developed his Theory of Evolution, he is also credited with the discovery of DNA and genetic science and this breakthrough has been used by British scientists to create the most fantastic, fabricated biological machines. This is biotechnology, but certainly not as we know it! These fabricated machines are not just new animals creations - many of them are made of the genes of multiple creatures to become more like ecosystems that individual organisms. The Leviathan is the prime example of this in the story. Most steampunk stories include the use of airships but to my knowledge no-one has ever written about an airship that is a combination of "umpteen different beasties". Westerfeld's descriptive writing about these fabulous creations is incredibly vivid, yet never affects the pace of the story which is almost breathless throughout. And should your imagination begin to tire at any point, there are always Keith Thompson's 50 sumptuous illustrations throughout the book (I'll pop a couple of them at the bottom of this review). Many books for Young Adults would benefit considerably from illustrations, in much the way many adult books had illustrations back in the Victorian era.

In contrast to the biotechnology used by Britain, the Austrian/German nations in the book rely on 'Clankers' - petrol/diesel mechanical technology, but again very different from the machines that were used by these countries in our world's Great War. These aren't tanks with caterpillar tracks; instead they are huge walking machines resembling giant robots (in fact Alek, the principle Austrian character in the story will not even entertain the idea that a war machine could move around on anything other than legs: "How else would a war machine get around? On treads, like an old-fashioned farm tractor?" These continental powers also believe that the Darwinian creations are godless, and Westerfeld uses this fundamental difference in beliefs between the two powers well, implying throughout that it is the underlying reason for the tension between the two Powers, much like religion is in many parts of the world and wars today.

The characters too are wholly believable. On the one hand we are first presented with Prince Aleksander, son of the Archduke Ferdinand and potential heir to an empire. As in our world's history the Archduke is murdered in Sarajevo, but this is where the story diverges from our own world's. Alek, with the help of a few faithful family 'staff', manages to escape on a clanker on the night of his parents' murders and sets off on an adventure across Austria, evading the enemy powers that would have him join his dead parents.

The otehr principle character is Deryn Sharp, a girl who desperately wants to join the Air Service. Unfortunately females are prohibted from doing this and so she 'joins up' in the guise of a boy. A slight mishap during a training exercise leaves Deryn (or Dylan as she is now known) stationed aboard the Leviathan, her lifelong dreams rapidly becoming reality. Through skill, hardwork and some good fortune she manages to retain her place on the ship as it embarks on a special mission to ferry the enigmatic Dr. Barlow to Constantinople..... just as the hostilities break out on the continent.

Of course, Alek's and Deryn's paths eventually cross through the skillful story-telling abilities of Mr Westerfeld, and a close friendship begins to blossom despite their different beliefs and backgrounds. I loved the way that the author manages to keep you fully interested in both characters, even in the early stages of the book when they are still hundreds of miles part, by changing the character viewpoint every two chapters.

I'm not going to say any more, for fear of getting carried away and spoiling the book for readers. Suffice to say, I was left hungry for a lot more by the time I finished the book, with Westerfeld leaving us with a cliff-hanger ending in the tradition of the old Republic movie serials - no Harry Potter-esque end of term return to home for these two young people. Sadly, the sequel is not due to be published until October 2010, but I am sure that by then Westerfeld will have a huge following.

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