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Book Review – ‘Leviathan’ by Scott Westerfeld

December 13, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Book Synopsis:

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.

Wow, looks like Scott Westerfeld has hit the jackpot again; his latest novel ‘Leviathan‘, which is the first of a series of books dealing with an alternate world which is a World War 1 / Steampunk mash-up, reads like a total winner. I already can’t wait for the sequel!

It’s a pity that Scott Westerfeld’s novels are marketed to the (very lucrative) young adult fiction genre, since that tends to put off adult readers. But trust me, adults shouldn’t shy away from this one. Yes, this is a ‘book-with-pictures’ but I gotta say that Keith Thompson’s beautiful black-and-white sketches only serve to enhance the story. Westerfeld’s writing style is pretty clever and sophisticated (he does NOT dumb down to his audience) and his ideas are always out-of-this-world rad. If I have any complaints, it would be to say that I found the book way too short! Westerfeld better hunker down and write part two quick.

The alternate reality in Leviathan is amazingly fascinating. As Westerfeld explains in his author’s note, the basic events in the novel are based on history – there was a real Archduke of Austria/Hungary whose assassination precipitated the 1st World War in Europe. But for the rest of the novel, Westerfeld pretty much goes off into a tangent of his own making. The world in Leviathan is divided into the ‘Clankers’ – people with highly advanced machine technology / engineering (i.e. Austria, Germany) and the ‘Darwinists’ – people who have mastered DNA manipulation such that they are able to create bizarre crossbred species called ‘beasties’ or fabricated animals (i.e. England, Russia). It is an incredible world wherein there are Stormwalkers (tanks that walk instead of roll – think of steampunk versions of the Imperial Walkers from ‘Empire Strikes Back’) and the Leviathan (a whale that serves as a living airplane) amongst other delights.

These two groups are natural enemies, but an alliance is formed nonetheless between a group of ‘Clankers’ – 15-year-old young prince-in-hiding Alek and his loyal band of men and ‘Darwinists’ – 15-year-old Deryn/Dylan (who is masquerading as a boy soldier) and the British Air Service aboard the Leviathan. One of the things I like best about Westerfeld is that his women characters are always strong – you won’t find any simpering neurotic damsel-in-distress here! Deryn is spirited, spunky and endlessly resourceful, and yes, can be annoying at times with her over-achiever Type-A personality. Another strong female character, the scientist/diplomat Dr. Bowler, serves as a good counter-weight to all the testosterone aboard the Leviathan.

Meanwhile, my 14-year-old self would have had a huge crush on the young prince Aleksandar who had to grow up really fast in the novel amidst the total upheaval in his life. While far from being a ‘perfect’ prince when we first meet him (Alek is pretty much a coddled, sheltered, spoilt boy at first), the prince learns quickly from his mistakes and eventually grows a pair. By the end, Alek comes across as a level-headed strong young man who is pretty heroic (and yes, swoon-worthy for say, someone like Deryn) in his own way.

I love that at its heart, take away the sci-fi elements, this is an old-fashioned adventure story. There’s non-stop action and battle scenes to satisfy anyone, and I was pretty much hooked from the first chapter (where Alek makes his escape from the palace) to the last chapter (where – oops – okay, I won’t spoil it!). Suffice it to say that I am highly recommending this book to both the young and old, and I’m definitely buying a couple of copies to give-away as gifts this Christmas!

Leviathan is available on Amazon as an enchantingly-illustrated Hardcover ($10.79 only, 46% OFF!), Kindle Edition ($9.99, 50% OFF!) and Audiobook ($19.79, 34% OFF!).

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