Goliath is the third (and last) book in Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk LEVIATHAN trilogy, preceded by Leviathan and Behemoth. It follows two young protagonists (a prince disguised as a commoner and a girl disguised as a boy) through an alternative version of WWI in which the battle-lines are drawn between German Clankers and the Allied Darwinists. Westerfeld has created an elaborate world of opposing technologies and their requisite ideologies, where the Clankers construct large mechanical Walkers and the Darwinists genetically engineer a range of hybrid creatures in order to wage war upon each other. It’s an imaginative concept and Westerfeld milks it for all it’s worth, with plenty of ingenious creations strewn throughout the narrative. Discovering what clever idea he has next in store for the reader is half the fun.
So far a combination of luck, skill and teamwork has kept fugitive Prince Aleksander of Austria and Midshipman Dylan Sharp (actually Deryn) alive as they avoid Germans, stir up Turkish revolutions, and struggle to keep their secrets throughout. Of late, Deryn has a further secret to keep: that she’s nursing a pretty serious crush on her princely companion, who still thinks that she’s a boy. But there’s little time to worry about that, as the Leviathan is heading toward Siberia to answer a distress call from a stranded airship. Who should they find there but the infamous (and slightly unhinged) inventor Nikola Tesla, who brings aboard ship a device that he claims is a weapon that could end the war. According to him, this Goliath is a weapon of mass destruction like none the world has ever seen before.
Having already run across some of his weapons in the past, Alek and Deryn are leery. Is ending the war worth all the lives that would be lost in using such a weapon? As the Leviathan turns toward America both are beset with doubt. Tesla has Darwinist loyalties, which means that any city to fall prey to the Goliath might be part of Alek’s homeland. Should they trust such an eccentric and erratic individual? Or should Alek take Wildcount Volger’s advice and secretly dispose of Tesla by more subtle means?
It’s a hefty moral dilemma, and Westerfeld doesn’t provide any easy answers. When the truth about Deryn’s gender finally comes out, Alek finds himself struggling with who he can really trust. As always, the backstabbing politics of the war is juxtaposed with the genuine friendship that grows between Alek and Deryn — and which here is severely tested. Otherwise, their dynamic remains the same: whereas Alek is a meticulous planner who believes he is guided by providence, Deryn is an act-first, think-later type of girl who knows how to keep cool under pressure. Both accentuate the other nicely, and for the first time a hint of mutual romance begins to emerge between them.
Westerfeld shows a deft hand in melding real people and events (often tweaked ever so slightly) with his own characters and storylines. Familiar figures such as William Randolph Hearst, Adela Rogers and Pancho Villa are all incorporated into the story, and Westerfeld’s afterword is fascinating in discovering just what was true about his story and what was not — indeed, many of the facts sound too incredible to be true! His usage of such things does lead to a few stalled plotlines (the frequent reminders that Philip Frances is secretly a German ends up being a nod to history instead of an actual plot development) and some history buffs may be appalled at the liberties he takes (poor Nikola Tesla!) but it’s all in the name of a compelling story.
The real joy of the book is in the clear descriptive writing, and Westerfeld’s ability to paint a vivid picture of the world the characters inhabit. He also manages to outline the intricacies of warfare and politics without it getting too convoluted. It’s often difficult to balance the exposition of world-building with characterization and pacing, but Westerfeld hits that perfect note without getting bogged down in either vagaries or excessive detail. In this he is helped by Keith Thompson’s black-and-white illustrations, which provide great images on what exactly these characters, creatures, machines and gadgets look like.
To be honest, I didn’t enjoy Goliath quite as much as I did Behemoth, which was a near-flawless, action-packed story of suspense and scope. Despite being the final book in the trilogy, the stakes didn’t feel quite as high here, and a lot of time is spent at dinner parties, pit-stops and dealing with interfering journalists. But in saying that, it’s still a fantastic read, with a return from the conniving Wildcount Volger, the implacable Doctor Nora Barlow, and even an all-too-brief reappearance from the revolutionary Lilit.
As the final book in a gripping trilogy, Goliath ends on just the right note: lots of explosions, plenty of suspense, and a kiss.