Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Leviathan (Leviathan #1)
Scott Westerfeld

Simon Pulse (2009)
440 pages
YA / Steampunk / Alternate History

Purchase it from Amazon here

I have to admit up front that I am distracted.  I’m distracted by the stress stemming from my misguided trip to the grocery store.  I’m distracted by the fact that Thanksgiving is in a few days and I don’t have a clue what we’re looking for on Black Friday.  I’m distracted by the six pounds of gummy bears I purchased at the story to use in building a famous world monument.  Mostly, though, I’m distracted by the Greatest Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen.  I’m part of team #473.  We are awesome.  We are international.  We are looking for someone who has pictures from a Hell House (you know, those church sponsored haunted houses).  If you have one and are willing to supply it to what would be a very grateful scavenger hunt team, email it to me at workingforthemandroid at gmail dot com.  Seriously, we’d be super thankful.

But moving on to the point of this post – Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld.  It’s been collecting dust on my shelf for over a year, its shiny bronze cover distracting me in its steampunk glory but yet me never having the time/chance/inclination/whatever to start reading it.  I had the intention of beginning many times, but never made it.  But now I finally started and finished three days later.  I need Behemoth stat.

This is perfect steampunk gateway territory.  It’s a fast-paced, brilliantly crafted story combining steampunk with elements of fantasy in an alternate version of World War I.  Archduke Franz Ferdinand has a son, Alek, that can’t be legitimately acknowledged as heir to the Austrian throne because of his mother’s common bloodline.  Deryn is a Scottish girl who wants to be in the British navy, so she becomes Dylan and joins up as a young recruit.  Neither can really be who they want to be, so they fake it and are awesome the entire way.

I have a huge girl crush on Deryn, which is awkward because she’s 15.  She spends the entire book pretending to be a boy and manages to show up all the other young British soldiers from the moment she shows up.  She’s fearless, intuitive and adventuresome.  She is everything a young female protagonist should be in my books.  From the moment she first appears, I liked her and when she found herself loose in a flying jelly fish contraption high above England without much of a care in the world, she became one of my favorite female characters possibly ever.

Then there’s Alek, who is a bit flaky at the beginning because he’s been raised as royalty despite his common bloodline and is suddenly whisked away from his life by people he can’t figure out are friend or foe.  Once he manages to get his feet beneath him again, figuratively speaking, he’s equally engaging – determined, selfless and very much his own person though young and previously sheltered.  When Alek and Deryn finally end up at the same place, sparks don’t fly.  I mean, Alek thinks Deryn is a boy, and yet I can’t help but want them to be best friends for all of time, knowing that they belong together. 

Despite being alternate history, World War I starts in a similar manner – the Germans use the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand as an excuse to start a war that spreads quickly through Austria, Hungary, and Russia before spilling over into England, France and further.  Leviathan only covers that first month after the assassination when it was still mostly the Germans picking fights with everyone.

Oh, I guess I should probably mention the whole machines versus monsters thing too.  Whereas in the real World War I, both sides fought with similar weapons, in Westerfeld’s world there are two distinct sides – the side of the Germans and Austrians, who rely human-run complex mechanical contraptions to fight their battles (think tanks that are shaped like giant metal spiders or those man driven robot things from Avatar) while the side led by England prefers a more Darwinian approach, using genetically created creature in battle such as a giant hydrogen producing whale-like creature in place of a zeppelin or other airship that also hosts an entire ecosystem of other animals that can act as weapons.  It’s a battle between clankers and Darwinists, and Westerfeld makes it a much closer match up than it originally seemed like it would be.

Not once did this story drag.  At the beginning it’s told in two chapter sets of alternating viewpoints – first Alek’s journey away from home as he sneaks away from potential threats at home, then Deryn’s attempt to enter the British air force under the guise of a teenager boy.  About two thirds through, our two main characters finally meet and the story starts moving even faster.  Battles are waged, tight scrapes are barely gotten out of, and action appears just when things might start feeling a little monotonous.  There isn’t a lot of breathing room in this book, but it works.  There’s not really a time to relax in war and I doubt there’s a moment for a break when living and working on a giant flying whale full of highly flammable hydrogen.

While some of the secondary characters get developed a little, they mostly stay a mystery.  It’s not until the very end that we discover exactly the identity of the mysterious female dignitary scientist traveling aboard the Leviathan and exactly how important she might before further in the trilogy.  Alek’s traveling companions – primarily his fencing tutor Volger – feature more predominately towards the beginning of the story, but still only represent parts of Alek’s life and not actually their own three dimensional characters, but I think this is something that will change further on.  Leviathan sets up the stories of Alek and Deryn, something it does very well and vividly.  I could read about their adventures for a very long time and not get bored, even with all the sailing lingo.

I think I have my new gateway steampunk rec now.  Leviathan is a clever and thought provoking YA title that was a so much fun to read.  It’s an entire world full of wonders led by engaging characters that are unique and fun to follow around. 


Addition 11/22/11: I told you I was distracted when I wrote this yesterday.  I cannot believe I forgot to mention the wonderful line drawings in this book.  Every 10-15 pages, there are black and white drawings of a scene taking place.  Despite the seeming simplistic nature of the style, each picture has so much movement and detail that found myself staring at many of them longer than I was probably supposed to study them.  It's gorgeous work done by Keith Thompson.  He even makes Deryn look like a believable boy while still having a hint of femininity and the monsters are all believable yet completely unbelievable from all the tiny little details.  I want prints of this artwork to put on my wall!

Oh yes, and there's a map!  Everyone knows how much I love maps!


Really engaging story telling with vivid, interesting and charismatic main characters; adventures both on land and in the sky; fast paced and lots of fun


I bought this book a long time with an Amazon gift card given to me by a co-worker for being awesome.  I'm kinda surprised I remember that.