In the world of Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, 1914 Europe is perched precariously on a knife-edge. On one side are the the British “Darwinians,” whose world is made-up of fabricated mutant species bred to specific tasks—the greatest of which is the Leviathan, the titular airship which is actually a functioning ecosystem built around a hydrogen-expelling floating sperm whale. On the other are the Eastern European “Clankers” who rely on kerosene-driven machines instead. Enter Alek, the (fictional) son of the (very real) Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary; and Deryn, a Scottish girl with a passion for flight. Add the advent of WWI and stir well.
Added bonus: this book is full of beautiful black and white illustrations by Keith Thompson–a color version of one of them is featured on the cover above!
When Alek’s parents are murdered, he is spirited away by the small but loyal crew of a Stormwalker (a walking war machine) in the hopes of reaching safety in Switzerland. Across the ocean, Deryn has disguised herself as a boy named Dylan in order to take the British Air Service Academy tests. Deryn ends up as a midshipman on the Leviathan, and the Leviathan ends up crashing in the Swiss Alps near where Alek and his protectors have taken refuge, and both are catapulted into the swiftly shifting international situation on a desperate trip to the Ottoman Empire.
Deryn/Dylan is an interesting character in that she’s not only under threat as a junior officer in the British Air Service during wartime—the scene in which she weathers a German airstrike on the hull of the Leviathan is of particular gritty realism—but also must be on guard for constant exposure as a girl. She struggles to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of her fellow male crew members: shoving and throwing knives and shaving. She’s fully as capable as her fellows, and it’s obvious that she truly loves to fly just as it is obvious she’s not meant to be confined to skirts and knitting. Very reminiscent of L.A. Meyer’s intrepid adventurer, Jacky Faber.
In addition, Deryn doesn’t always react in the way you’d expect a heroine in a YA novel to act. When Alek appears with medicinal supplies after the Leviathan crash, she doesn’t accept his help unquestioningly. In fact, she captures him as a hostage, gratitude be damned. While she’s certainly got an ego, she’s also a quick thinker who can save herself without help, thankyouverymuch. The book actually opens on her daring one-man trip into a storm front that she successfully navigates to safety, and is rewarded with a place on the Leviathan.
Scott Westerfeld is known for writing things I feel like I’ve read already, even within his own bibliography (I’m pretty sure the ‘Uglies’ series was the same book four times). But that’s not to say his stories aren’t engaging.
In ‘Leviathan,’ he jumps on the steampunk bandwagon, following Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and even channeling Jacky Faber’s piratical adventures. All of which came first and are written better.
HOWEVER. This is still a really interesting book with plenty of original innovation on Westerfeld’s part. Of note, the British ‘Darwinian’ creations like the Leviathan, an ecosystem of symbiotic organisms (whale, jellyfish, glow worms, bacteria, bats, etc) that still functions like an airship. Also, the story takes place at the onset of WWI, and in Alek’s case in particular, there is lots of lovely political intrigue to interest you history-type folks.
Familiar storyline or not, the book is a lot of fun and I read it in one sitting. Westerfeld switches between his two protagonists intermittently, so it’s really difficult to put the book down, even at the end of a chapter. Leviathan rates somewhere between an AJ and JG on the PSA—I honestly couldn’t decide and considered creating another rating but I think we’ve got enough as it is! The next book, Behemoth, was just released at the beginning of October.