Leviathan is the beginning of a new steampunk YA series by Scott Westerfeld, author of other well-known (and highly recommended) YA series such as Uglies and Midnighters, along with one of my favorite non-YA science fiction works of recent memory, The Risen Empire (even more highly recommended). As is usual with good YA, don’t let the label turn you away; Westerfeld knows how to write for a younger audience without dumbing things down and without excluding older readers.
Leviathan is set in a mostly familiar historical world just on the cusp of World War I. Familiar as in the geography, populations, etc. are all pretty much the same — you’ve got your Austro-Hungarians, Germans, British Empire, etc and your Arch-Duke Ferdinand, who does go and get himself assassinated. In this version, however, he has a son, Alek, who manages to escape with the help of some loyal staffers.
Oh yeah — another small difference is that the Austro-Hungarians and Germans (and allies) employ powerful steam-driven machinery (Alek, for example, escapes in a Walker — a steam-powered version, though even cooler, of the walkers in Star Wars) and are known as Clankers for their marvelous mechanical devices. The English and their allies, on the other hand, went in a wholly different direction, following the path of Charles Darwin, who in this history learned how to manipulate DNA. They now bioengineer what they need, such as the eponymous Leviathan, a huge airship which is really an entire eco-system centered on a whale, but also including creatures such as hydrogen-sniffers to find leaks, floating jellyfish as personal balloons, messenger lizards that speak, and bats that, well, why ruin the fun with that one? Logically enough, the English and friends are known as Darwinists and so, rather than Allies-Axis, one has a war between Clankers and Darwinists, with an heir to an empire running around trying to avoid capture.
Alex’s story takes up one narrative strand from the start, beginning with the news of his father’s death and Alek’s subsequent escape. A twinned narrative is set in England and follows a young girl, Deryn, who disguises herself as a boy in order to join the British Air Service, as her now-dead father once did. As one would expect, the two strands eventually come together and Alek and Deryn meet, eventually ending up together as they move toward book two.
The world-building in terms of Clankers and Darwinists is wonderful, with lots of vibrant, original imagery; it’s clear that Westerfeld had a good time coming up with the various mechanicals and “beasties,” and his enthusiastic creativity and fanciful prose descriptions are nicely complemented by Keith Thompson’s black-and-white illustrations throughout.
The plot is well-paced throughout (no bloat in this book) and suspense comes in a variety of ways — from small stealth-stalk scenes to full-pitched aerial battles, but also from moments of personal decision — whom to trust, how to act on that trust, what secrets to keep, etc.
Westerfeld’s strength has always been his characterization, and this is true of Leviathan as well. Both Alek and Deryn are fully fleshed-out realistic teen characters, with none of the two annoying extremes one often finds in such portrayals: the wise-beyond-their-years type or the slangy too-dumbed-down type. Both feel like real teens and act as such, for good and bad. Side characters are sharply drawn and complex, such as Count Volger, one of Alek’s loyal staffers, or Dawinia, a mysterious passenger picked up in London. And all the characters grow/develop/unfold new complexities as the story continues.
Leviathan is a wonderful mix of the utterly original and the familiar — alternate history layered atop known history, engineering and biology tweaked a bit askew from what we now know and do, fresh portrayal of age-old fantasy/storytelling tropes (orphan protagonists, an heir in hiding, a girl disguised as a boy, adolescent bickering combined with attraction, etc.), use of paired imagery/themes (Clankers vs. Darwinists, Luddites vs Progressives, boy vs. girl, etc.) It all just works as a compelling story, a fun ride, an exuberantly creative ride, and confirms Scott Westerfeld as one of the best writers going now. Highly recommended.