REVIEW: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

REVIEW: Leviathan by Scott WesterfeldLeviathan (Leviathan #1) by Scott Westerfeld
Published: Simon & Schuster (2009), Hardcover, 440pg
Source: Library
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Sci-fi, Steampunk

It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet. Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men. Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She's a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered. With the Great War brewing, Alek's and Deryn's paths cross in the most unexpected way...taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever.

I’ve been excited for Leviathan since about…July? I even wrote down the publication date on my calendar so I’d know to get it from the library.

So it was with a lot of anticipation and expectation for awesomeness that I started reading Leviathan, and I’m so happy that it was awesome because I don’t think I could rebound from a disappointment like expecting superb and getting subpar. But Leviathan is not subpar. It is superb, and now I’m wondering if I’m not putting more into it than it actually gave me. Because I was expecting awesome, and I got awesome, did I inadvertently influence my own reaction?

Possibly I’ve been in college too long. Those anthropology/sociology classes will really get you if you don’t watch out.

Ignoring any potential contamination from my expectations for Leviathan, let’s talk about what I loved best about it.

Darwinist tech? Or alien plants?
Darwinist tech? Or alien plants?
Leviathan is rich with details but I never felt bogged down or confused. I love alternate history books, and this truly felt like an alternate history. I know a little about Franz Ferdinand because of, um, the band, and I know a little about Darwin and about WWI, but not enough that I knew exactly what Mr Westerfeld changed in his book (he does explain at the end). The more obvious changes, however, like the animal-machine-things, made me all tingly. It was exciting!

Now, on to the stuff I liked the best!

I love Deryn, the strong female lead who doesn’t hold with nonsense and could kick YOUR ass, for sure. I love that she’s actually a really good soldier and not just a little girl playacting as one, and that she takes her job seriously and she’s doing really well. I almost hope she doesn’t get found out (it seems almost inevitable she will), but at the same time I hope she is and then maybe the government will get their heads out of their butts and make her a general, or something. Because she’s awesome!

I liked Alek a lot, too. He’s kind of like Arthur from The Once and Future King: he’s got the potential to be a really good leader if he can just keep from getting killed. Also he’s a woobie (third definition), and I have a soft spot for woobies. I liked his friend, Count Volger, too, who is very Prussian but a bit of a dandy/scalawag.

The technology is very interesting. There’s two sides to it: the more organic Darwinist technology and the mecha-like Clanker technology. I think using scientifically modified animals like they were machines is creep and weird but also kind of cool. Who doesn’t want to ride around in a flying whale that’s powered by the poop of birds and bees? Yes, it’s strange, but it’s also really fascinating.

Clanker technology? Or awesome Japanese thing?
Clanker technology? Or awesome Japanese thing?
I liked the Clanker stuff, too (think legs instead of wheels), but it wasn’t as cool as the Darwinist technology. Maybe there’ll be some more interesting examples in the next book.

This is kind of an aside, but I so appreciated the book being set during World War I instead of the Victorian period or even WWII. WWI doesn’t get enough, er, love? And I haven’t read many books set during it, so it was refreshing to see what Mr Westerfeld used from it and what he changed to make his book.

And though I really liked the illustrations (by Keith Thompson)– they’re beautiful— they kept confusing me because Alek and Deryn look about 12-13 in them, but they’re supposed to be 15-16 years old. The book works either way, but the illustrations for sure kept me de-aging the protagonists and I’m not sure if that’s bad?

And finally, I’m so glad the ending isn’t an all-out cliffhanger, but neither does it end conclusively. It’s obvious that this first book is part of a series but I’m not ripping my skin off waiting for the next installment. (That’s a good thing, believe me.)

Read: October 2009

Alien balloon plants picture from Wired. Landwalker photo from Sakakibara Kikai.

0 thoughts on “REVIEW: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld”

  1. Great review! I am reading this right now, and although I am not yet done with it (soon though!) I can say that I agree with most of your observations! This will definitely enter my top 10 for the year!

  2. I’ve heard nice things about this book but I can’t decide whether to read it or not. I have a difficult relationship with steampunk – it SOUNDS like I would surely love it, but I have found very few steampunk books that I really liked. I don’t know if I’m brave enough to try & possibly have my heart broken again. 😛

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