Leviathan

The year is 1914, and Alek is on the run after learning that his parents have just been murdered. This isn’t any normal boy, though, and these weren’t any normal parents: the murder victims are Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, making Alek prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Alek, his fencing instructor Count Volger, and his Master of Mechanics Otto Klopp abscond from his home under cover of darkness, with Alek piloting a walker—a walking machine intended for both transportation and combat—through the countryside. They hope to make it to neutral territory, Switzerland, where they can wait out the ensuing battles, and hide from Alek’s own people, who want him dead.

Meanwhile, in England, Deryn has joined the British Air Services, and lives in constant fear of a different type of discovery. She is a girl disguised as a boy, and though she is very adept at her job, she knows she will never be accepted as a woman. The English are Darwinists, makers of fabricated beasts, and thus Deryn is on an airship called the Leviathan, an ecosystem that from the outside looks like a floating whale. The English, along with their allies in Russia and France, are the enemy of Alek’s people, the Clankers, who are known for their fabricated war machines.

Alek and his crew have just made it to Switzerland when the Leviathan is shot down and crashes on a nearby glacier. Though his companions warn him not to, he goes out to the damaged airship to offer supplies. He is captured, and soon his Clanker crew and their Darwinist enemies are working together on the Leviathan, fighting against a shared enemy.

Having never read a steampunk novel before, I can’t say if Leviathan is typical of the genre. I know some people really rave about this book—and I thought many of the steampunk touches were quite appealing—but, on the whole, I was unimpressed. The novel is broken up into two stories, that of Alek and that of Deryn, and thus divided into alternating chapters. Alek starts off the novel, narrating two chapters at a time, before Deryn takes over for her two chapters. I found myself enjoying his sections and dreading hers, so I guess, in all fairness, I can say that I enjoyed half of the novel. There’s a lot going on with Alek, even if some reviewers accuse him of being somewhat one-note: he’s dealing with the very recent death of his parents, he’s fighting for his life against his own people, and he’s learning to be humble, to look beyond his privileged upbringing so that he can adapt to his new situation.

I’m sure I was supposed to identify with Deryn. She is, after all, the girl, and many of the reviews I’ve read elevate her to one of the greatest female main characters in all of YA. But, really, she’s grating. She speaks in this contrived slang that I’m sure was meant to add to the authenticity (without resorting to actual expletives), but that really just annoyed me. She’s also constantly playing a part: it’s hard to have any understanding of the real Deryn because she’s always playing the boy, Dylan, even when she’s alone. I wouldn’t classify her as a strong female character because there’s not much to really define her as female. She just comes off as your typical insecure boy, trying too hard to impress those in authority, and overcompensating for any perceived shortcomings.

Still, the author, Westerfeld, leaves plenty of room for character growth, and it looks like he is setting Alek and Deryn up for greater development. This is, after all, part one of a trilogy. Despite my misgivings, and my hesitant reading, I must admit that I am interested in learning what happens next. There is certainly no lack of adventure, and it’s easy to get swept up in the action. The war machines and fabricated beasts are brilliantly imagined, and the illustrations really help to bring them to life. Even though I didn’t consider Leviathan a fast read, or a particularly gripping one, I still found much to enjoy. Fan of action, adventure, and, of course, history, will probably be quite taken with this hybrid romp, relishing both the liberties Westerfeld takes and the facts that remain the same. For those of us less inclined, however, it still might be worth a look. It’s a well-done venture into steampunk that reimagines the past with the technology of the future: at the very least, it should make for a fascinating afternoon in the present.

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