Monday, November 16, 2009

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

This new young adult steampunk novel by Scott Westerfeld imagines an alternate World War I that pits British Darwinists--who have mastered the science of extracting and blending "life threads" to genetically engineer organisms--against German Clankers--who have engineered mechanical walking machines in all shapes and sizes.

It's a clever background. The Germans and their Austro-Hungarian allies have basically assembled a collection of steam-operated mecha, ranging in size from small one-man scouts to large, multi-legged land cruisers equipped with naval cannon. The Brits and their allies have aquatic and aerial navies assisted by their biotech. The wet navy has ships accompanied by giant Kraken-like "companions", while the latest airships used by the flyers are big floating ecosystems based on the greatly enlarged framework of whales.

These various creatures and creations are nicely illustrated in black and white pieces by artist Keith Thompson, scattered throughout the book.

The story starts out telling the parallel stories of two teens from very different sides of the tracks. Aleksander is the son of Archduke Ferdinand, on the run from would-be assassins following the political murder of his mother and father. Accompanied by some loyal house retainers, he helps pilot a walking talk (the Cyklop Stormwalker) to a hideout in the Alps. Deryn Sharp is a young girl determined to make her dream of becoming a member of the Royal Air Corps a reality (in memory of her late airman father), despite the fact that the military has a strict no girls policy. So she disguises herself as a boy with her older brother's help and assumes the role of midshipman Dylan Sharp.

The book alternates chapters in each character's story, until the narratives intersect about halfway through as strange events throw the unlikely pair together on an isolated glacier. Each teen has to adapt to new circumstances and plays a key role in helping their respective sides through a tough scrape. At this stage of their stories, at least, there is a friendship but only the barest hint of romance.

The book clearly demands a sequel, as we're left halfway through the story, though not really on a cliffhanger. And the afterword makes it clear that a sequel is in the works.

As Westerfeld says in his Afterword, "Leviathan is as much about possible futures as alternate pasts. It looks ahead to when machines will look like living creatures, and living creatures can be fabricated like machines." The book interlaces this futuristic element with bits of social issues, such as aristocracy and the role of women in society, that are rooted in its turn-of-the-century millieu. As such, it's a good example of steampunk.

I'm not normally a big reader of YA titles, and this book didn't amaze me or anything, but it's full of clever ideas and likable characters and I think it would be a very good read for a kid interested in exploring the genre.

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