On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated; this single event put into motion a chain of events that lead to what we now call World War I. That event begins the story told in Leviathan, but it soon becomes clear that everything else about Scott Westerfeld‘s setting is completely different from history as we know it.
The great European powers are divided into two opposing sides, but in Leviathan, each side has its own distinct technology and weaponry. Austro-Hungary and Germany are known as Clankers, having mastered the use of steam-driven war machines, whilst the British powers are known as Darwinists, having learnt how to manipulate the “threads of life” and genetically engineer animals to serve in their armies. The book’s namesake is one such creature, a giant leviathan that carries its own eco-system of bats, lizards, glowworms and other creatures living in symbiosis, and which serves as a living airship to its crew.
The story follows two young protagonists as they are drawn into the war that is steadily brewing across the continent, and the chapters alternate between of the two of them in the lead-up to their inevitable meeting halfway through the book. The first involves the Archduke’s only son Aleksander who is whisked away from his bedroom in the middle of the night by his fencing master to a mechanical stormwalker, soon to find himself on the run from the German forces that are out to assassinate the last heir to the Austrian throne. Having to deal with his parents’ deaths and his exile into a harsh environment, Aleksander is forced to grow up quickly as a leader of men and a crucial figure in the coming war.
On the other side of the conflict is Deryn Sharp, a midshipman with a secret: he is actually a she, drawn by a love of flying to disguise herself as a boy and join the crew of the Leviathan. When the ship is commandeered to transport a scientist to the Ottoman Empire, Deryn is astonished to find that Doctor Barlow is a vivacious young woman with a pet Tasmanian tiger and a heavy crate of something that is every bit as secret as Deryn’s true identity. Unsure what their mission is, Deryn is determined to simply enjoy her newfound freedom while it lasts.
Eventually the teenagers cross paths in Switzerland, where loyalties are called into question as each comes to rely on the other for their own survival. With the Germans closing in and food in short supply, an alliance between the two groups is necessary as their mutual enemy approaches. Though it’s quite episodic in nature, the story has a great build up to its climax and a broad scope as the characters traverse the mountains, various countries, and of course, the sky.
The main draw-card of the book (and its sequels) is the fascinating world that Westerfeld has created. Melding a WWI setting with steampunk sensibilities, the world of Leviathan is filled with intriguing quirks and discoveries, from the living airship to the rattling mechanics and how each character operates in this off-kilter world. Westerfeld clearly as a lot of fun with his skewed version of history, adding in a few genuine historical figures and anecdotes (which he discusses in his afterword) and using it as a backdrop to raise several questions about the nature of allies and enemies and what each means to the other in times of war.
Another nice touch is the stylistic differences between Alek and Deryn’s chapters; whereas Alek’s narrative is written in clear, refined prose, Deryn’s is more casual and littered with heavy use of slang terms such as ‘clart,’ ‘beastie,’ ‘bum-rag’ and ‘barking spiders,’ which double as swear-words in times of crisis. Alek reconciling his privileged upbringing with life on the run, and Deryn trying to grasp the behavior and mannerisms of a young man, are well realized and make up most of their characterization throughout the story.
Deryn and Alek are surrounded by capable, intelligent adults that often help and seldom hinder them, allowing them to grow into adults without the need for them to upstage every adult that crosses their path. It’s a rare thing in YA fiction to have sympathetic grownups involved heavily in the action, while still letting the young protagonists be the heroes. Westerfeld strikes a good balance, with adults and youngsters alike relying on each other, making mistakes, and learning valuable life lessons as Alek and Deryn’s idealism is simultaneously eroded and validated by their actions. Alek and Deryn’s interaction with the surly, no-nonsense Count Volger and the sharp, rather self-involved Doctor Barlow are particularly good.
I don’t read a lot of steampunk (it’s not that I don’t like it, I just seldom come across it), but Westerfeld is masterful at creating the visceral elements of this world, from the smell of oil to the sound of fabricated animals to what it must feel like to dangle at one hundred feet from a giant floating jellyfish. The book is completely immersive when it comes to the sights and sounds of its setting, and despite the strangeness of his spin on science and biology, Westerfeld makes it all feel oddly plausible. He’s in clear control of the rules that he’s set for himself in the making of this world, and everything has a weight and internal logic to it that lets it all hang together.
The ending is wide open for a sequel, and with plenty of humor, invention, action, intrigue and the first hints of an impending romance in this installment, the series can only get better as Westerfeld delves deeper into this alternative history with Behemoth.