Sunday 2 January 2011

Review: Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

The behemoth is the fiercest creature in the British navy. It can swallow enemy battleships with one bite. The Darwinists will need it, now that they are at war with the Clanker powers.

Deryn is a girl posing as a boy in the British Air Service, and Alek is the heir to an empire posing as a commoner. Finally together aboard the airship Leviathan, they hope to bring the war to a halt. But when disaster strikes the Leviathan’s peacekeeping mission, they find themselves alone and hunted in enemy territory.

Alek and Deryn will need great skill, new allies, and brave hearts to face what’s ahead.

I started reading this book as soon as it arrived back at the end of September, but unfortunately I then proceeded to mislay it. I spent hours searching through every room in the house, thinking I had put it down somewhere unusual in an absent-minded moment. More books arrived, work got busy, and finding my copy of Behemoth somehow slipped down my list of priorities. Imagine my delight when, purely by chance a couple of weeks ago, I found it under the driver's seat of my car. How it got there I no longer cared, all that mattered was that I would be able to restart it, and just in case I finished it in a single sitting this time - this wasn't exactly a chore as it is nothing short of brilliant. In fact, looking back now, I feel that if I had completed it at first attempt then it may have beaten David Gatward's The Dark to The Book Zone Book of the Month title back in October.

The first book in this series, Leviathan, was one of my favourite books of 2009 and at the time in my review I described it as "one of the finest examples of steampunk fiction for boys that I have come across". I think I may have receieved the odd word of criticism at the time for calling it steampunk (I seem to remember one commentator suggesting that it should be more accurately referred to as dieselpunk), but I feel that over the past year the definition of what is and isn't steampunk has become increasingly blurred - no longer is is restricted to an alternate Victorian reality, thanks to the great workds of authors like Cherie Priest (Boneshaker and Dreadnought) and Scott Westerfeld. 

For those of you who have not discovered Leviathan yet, the story is set in alternate Europe at the outbreak of The Great War. So far, so what's the alternate bit? Well that's where Scott Westerfeld's amazing imagination comes into the fore - the British (and some of their allies) are Darwinists, a society who follow the discoveries of Charles Darwin, who after developing the Theory of Evolution went on to become the father of genetic science. His discoveries led to advances in science so that now the British use vehicles, weapons and other devices that have are custom-fabricated biological creations, with nary a gearwheel or piston in sight. Across the Channel, the Germans are the principle super-power, and they abhor the blasphemous creations of the Darwinists. Instead, they rely on the power of steam and diesel and the metal machines that they drive, and as such have been christened the 'Clankers'.

This book picks up straight after the closing scenes of Leviathan, with protagonists Alek and Deryn on board the living airship, heading towards Constantinople as part of the British mission to encourage the Sultan and his Ottoman Empire from siding with the Clankers in the war that is just kicking off in Europe. Deryn is still trying to hide the fact that she is a girl, Alek, technically a prisoner on the Leviathan as it arrives in Constantinople, is still hiding his own true identity as the possible heir to the Austrian empire. As they arrive in Constantinople, or Istanbul as the locals now prefer it to be known, the crew of the Leviathan find that they are not alone in trying to influence the Ottoman ruler as the Germans have already arrived, and the sight of so many clanker-style machines around the city suggests that the delays experienced by the Darwinists in the first book may prove to be catastrophic. This leads for a greater element of political intrigue than we saw in the previous story, with the Germans, Ottomans, British, Austrians and groups of unhappy anarchists all working behind each others' backs to meet their own wants and needs.

Must as I loved Leviathan, I feel that the reason this book is even better than its predecessor is due to its location. Gone are the claustrophobic scenes set within the Leviathan, and Alek's frantic escape from his clanker pursuers, with the action flitting from one protagonist to another, chapter by chapter. Instead, we have a story set predominantly in one city, and a richly descibed one it is too. We are able to picture in our heads the sights, sounds and smells of this fantastic alternate Istanbul, with its rich familiar traditions and religions interwoven with Westerfeld's imagined technologies, biological or otherwise. And even though the story's point of view still alternates between the two main characters throughout the story, this time they are roughly in the same locale, interacting with the same people, which makes for a much more rewarding read in my opinion.

Behemoth is even more chock-full of riveting action scenes that its predecessor, as Alek and Deryn are thrown into one perilous situation after another. Every life-threatening scene further develops the close friendship that has grown between the two, although the fact that Deryn is starting to develop romantic feelings towards the Austrian prince does start to complicate things in her mind. Boys who steer away from books with romantic elements should not be put off though, these are only a small (but essential) part of the story.

As in Leviathan, another stand-out element of this book are the incredible black and white illustrtations of artsist Keith Thompson. I have to confess, the moment the book arrived the first thing I did was scan quickly through the book to gaze longingly at each of the beautifully detailed images. I have so far managed to resist the ever growing urge to buy a couple of his Behemoth prints, but I am not sure how much longer my willpower will hold out (I do have a BIG birthday coming up in April though... hmmmmm). I have included a couple of the images at the end of this post (click on them to view the super-sized versions) but you can see more of his amazing work here at his website.

The third, and final instalment in the trilogy, called Goliath, is scheduled for a September 2011 release, and yet again I find myself wishing my life away. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster for sending me a copy to review.

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