There are very few novels written in this century that leave you with the urge to shout things like “jolly good show!” Leviathan is most definitely one of them.
Over the last several years, Scott Westerfeld has established himself as a writer of fast-paced, edgy YA novels in a variety of flavours: future dystopia teenagers, vampire apocalypse teenagers, magical demon-slaying teenagers… With Leviathan he now turns his hand to steampunk, presenting the first volume of an action-adventure epic trilogy set in an Alternate Universe version of World War I.
It is 1914. Living airships roam the skies. Walking metal tanks prowl the ground. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary has been murdered along with his wife and while the political ramifications of this event spiral towards world war, their teenage son Alek goes on the run with a handful of allies. Meanwhile, British lass Deryn Sharp has disguised herself as a boy in order to train and serve as an airman. The (beautifully illustrated) world map is divided into Darwinist countries with their hybrid animal technology and Clanker countries with their more “traditional” steam-and-gears machinery, and the teen protagonists are on different sides of the technological divide as well as the war. But it’s getting harder to draw that line…
Yep, this is the steampunk everyone’s been talking about.
Leviathan has a very different feel to Westerfeld’s previous YAs. I’m not sure if it’s the historical period that does it, but it has less of a sexy, edgy vibe and more of a twelve-year-old-ripping-adventure vibe. I enjoyed both of the young protagonists, and the tangled, screwed up world they are part of. I loved the use of vocabulary, both historical and invented, to convey setting as well as character. The gorgeous illustrations by Keith Thompson contribute substantially to the reading experience, working alongside the story rather than as an optional extra. This visual element is part of what makes this book such an effective ‘Steampunk 101’ – the language, the historical source material, and the love affair with engines that characterise this sub-genre/movement are deeply ingrained in the text of Leviathan, but the illustrations do so much more to convey the style and tone of the alternate world Westerfeld has constructed. In particular, the magnificent map used as the endpapers of the novel, illustrating which countries are ‘Clanker’ territory and which are ‘Darwinist’ (like a mutant Lovecraftian version of Risk) does a beautiful job of setting the scene before we’ve even read a word.
While she isn’t a protagonist, I did particularly like the character of Dr Nora Barlow, a “boffin” and important scientist, who swans around the airship with her pet Tasmanian Tiger and her bowler hat.
I find it interesting that so many people are talking about this as the latest Scott Westerfeld novel without really acknowledging that this is such a departure from his more recent work. I would not be surprised if some of the audience for the Uglies and Midnighters and Peeps books (at least the teenagers) were less interested this new series, even as Leviathan draws in an entirely new generation of readers. It’s always interesting to see an author whose work you admire move on to pastures new.