Behemoth, the second book in Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk LEVIATHAN trilogy continues his action-packed story of two youngsters caught up in an alternate-world version of World War I in which real figures and events of the period are mingled with Westerfeld’s own imaginative ideas.
In his take on 1914 Europe, the Allies and the Central Powers are not only divided by war but by their opposing technologies: the German states are known as Clankers due to their mastery of steam-driven machinery, whilst the Allies follow the teachings of Charles Darwin, who discovered a way to manipulate “the threads of life” and design genetically engineered “fabricated beasts” to function as anything from messengers to living airships.
Behemoth‘s chapters alternate between the two protagonists: Aleksander, son of the assassinated Archduke of Austria-Hungary, and Deryn Sharp, a girl who has disguised herself as a boy to fulfil her dreams of flying in the British Air Service. As Alek is a prince posing as a commoner, and Deryn is a girl posing as a boy, both clutch tightly to their secrets, knowing that the revelation of their true selves is a matter of life or death. Yet despite Alek not yet knowing about Deryn’s gender, the two became fast friends over the course of the last book, Leviathan, resulting in Clanker and Darwinist technology being merged together to get the Leviathan airship out of a sticky situation.
Now the airship floats toward Istanbul (or Constantinople), a city in the midst of the Ottoman Empire which is on the brink of joining the war — but not necessarily on the Allies’ side. It is the Leviathan‘s peacekeeping mission to deliver Doctor Nora Barlow to the Sultan’s palace so that she might offer him compensation for the ships confiscated by Winston Churchill, a dilemma that has been lifted directly from history in which the famous First Lord of the Admiralty decided to seize a warship that the Ottoman Empire had already commissioned and paid for. This slight may well push the Empire into allying itself with Germany, and only Doctor Barlow’s mysterious fabricated eggs hold any hope in repelling German forces already exercising their power over the Sultan.
As the assassination of Alek’s parents is what started the war in the first place, Alek feels a certain sense of responsibility in facilitating its conclusion, whilst Deryn struggles every day with her secret — not helped at all by the fact that she’s gradually falling in love with Alek. Both characters go through a huge amount of development over the course of Behemoth — with Alek challenging the authority of his guardian Wildcount Volger, arguing over the specifics of their escape attempt, and unexpectedly finding himself in charge, whilst Deryn becomes part of a secret mission to weaken the Empire’s defences and has to think on her feet as it spirals out of control. When both are set adrift in the melting pot of cultures that make up Istanbul, they are caught up amongst revolutionaries (complete with a wonderful new female character called Lilit, who provides a spanner in the works of what is already a confusing love triangle) and find themselves in a position to act upon information known only to them.
Scott Westerfeld is best compared to Philip Reeve, author of THE HUNGRY CITY CHRONICLES, and Philip Pullman, of HIS DARK MATERIALS fame. All three authors have highly-imaginative world-building, vivid characterization, swift and suspenseful plotting and a clear, concise writing style. The chapters whizz by, and there’s not really much you can critique: every page is bursting with witty lines or a shocking twist or a clever conceit. Westerfeld plays fast and loose with history, combining elements such as the ironclads Breslau and Goeben, Admiral Wilhelm Souchon and the Orient Express with his own imaginative strength: walking mechanical beds, taxies that scuttle about like scarab beetles, and a living ship that contains its own eco-system, complete with lizards that mimic the voices of others in order to deliver messages and flechette bats that can rain down tiny metal spikes on enemy forces.
Oddly, Nora Barlow’s mysterious eggs are not as important as one was led to believe from the first book. Though they hatch into some rather delightful creatures over the course of the story, their role in the narrative is a bit of an anti-climax after the huge build-up in the first book. Yet this is more an observation than a criticism and hardly detracts from the story. From the streets of Istanbul to the icy wastelands of Russia, encompassing colourful characters ranging from the meddling journalist Eddie Malone to the beautiful and lethal revolutionary Lilit, as well as containing dozens of black-and-white illustrations by Keith Thompson, Behemoth is my favourite book of the three.
The LEVIATHAN trilogy blew me away with its creativity and verve; books that explore politics, relationships, duty and progress, all taking place in an ingenious steampunk setting, where two people can forge a friendship (or perhaps more) despite being on different sides of one of the greatest conflicts in history. Be sure to have the final book, Goliath, on hand.