Eve's Reviews > Leviathan

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
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's review
May 21, 2010

really liked it
Read in February, 2010

I have been eyeing Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld for months now and so when I needed a good dose of steampunk and alternative history, I picked it up and finally dove into it.

Like real historical events, the first World War in Leviathan is sparked by the assasinations of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife, Princess Sophie. Their only son, a teenage Archduke Aleksander, becomes an instant fugitive from his countrymen, his kingdom, and the Germans (who have orchestrated the murders). He is the rightful heir to the Austro-Hungary empire, but the Germans are now hunting him to prevent his claim. Westerfeld draws upon the complicated web of European royal family politics to illustrate how the assasinations ignite the World War as one by one European countries line up to do battle.

Not only are the European countries aligned in politics but also in their belief systems. Britain and France are Darwinists. Their scientists, beginning with Charles Darwin, have decoded the "life threads" (DNA) of living and extinct animals, combined them, and then fabricated fantastic new species with special abilities. Elephantines trudge up and down the streets of London pulling heavy cargo. Lizards memorize and impart verbal messages like instant telegraphs. Most spectacular of all is the Leviathan, a British military airship that is a cross between a whale and a dirigible. Deryn, a teenage girl disguised as a boy, is a midshipman on the Leviathan. Her sharp wits and skills have earned her a place in the legendary airship, but she is in constant fear that she will be found out.

The Germans, Russians, and Austria-Hungary are all Clankers, who think that Darwinists are an abomination. Their strengths are founded on steam-driven technological marvels. In this world, it is Clankers vs. Darwinists, machine vs. nature.

Deryn, on board the Leviathan which is en route to a secret mission to Constantinople, and Aleksander, on the run from the Germans in a stormwalker, suddenly find themselves in the middle of the first World War. Intended as enemies, Deryn and Aleksander find that perhaps their mutual survival depends on each other.

Leviathan is as steampunk as one can get; Westerfeld has imagined a world full of wondrous creations, complemented by Chris Thompson's amazing illustrations. The plot is non-stop action. The characters of commoner Deryn and royal Aleksander are equally sympathetic, even though their stations in life are as opposite as the belief systems they come from. Westerfeld devotes equal parts of Leviathan between Deryn's point of view and Aleksander's point of view, but I found I responded more to Deryn's and the Darwinists' narrative. These dual points of view seem to indicate a gender divide as well: machine/male (Aleksander and his troupe of loyal men) vs. nature/female (Deryn and the female genius scientist responsible for creating Leviathan).

Westerfeld has set up an interesting juxtaposition of scientific discovery and technological invention, a debate which he doesn't delve into too deeply. I hope he explores this further in the next book, called the Behemoth, as I know the ease of fabricating new species yields all sorts of questions about religion and man's responsibility in creating life - acting as God, in other words.

Deryn's favorite lectures were when the boffins explained natural philosophy. How old Darwin had figured out how to weave new species from old, pulling out the tiny threads of life and tanging them together under a microscope. How evolution had squeezed a copy of Deryn's own life chain into every cell of her body. How umpteen different beasties made up the Leviathan----from the microscopic hydrogen-farting bacteria in its belly to the great harnessed whale. How the airship's creatures , like the rest of Nature, were always struggling among themselves in messy, snarling equilibrium.

What I disliked was how Leviathan ended. Action, action, action, the buildup of exciting developments and then the sudden end. I knew Leviathan was a series going in and although there was some resolution to the plot by the last page, I felt it needed more closure - but I suppose it's only because I don't want to wait for the next book, due this fall, to see what happens next.

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