Book reviews, musings and waffle from a British lit addict

Review: ‘Leviathan’ by Scott Westerfeld

Date finished: 29 September 2011

Rating: 4 stars

Format: Paperback

Source: Bought

Genre: Alternative History; Steampunk

Published: by Simon & Schuster in May 2010

The Synopsis [taken from Waterstones.com]

Two opposing forces are on the brink of war. The Clankers – who put their faith in machinery – and the Darwinists – who have begun evolving living creatures into tools. Prince Aleksandar, the would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, comes from a family of Clankers, and travels the country in a walker, a heavily-fortified tank on legs. Meanwhile Deryn Sharp, a girl disguised as a boy, works for the British Empire, crewing the ultimate flying machine: an airship made of living animals. Now, as Alek flees from his own people, and Deryn crash-lands in enemy territory, their lives are about to collide…

The Review

On June 28 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia were assassinated in Sarajevo. Following that and a number of selfish moves by some powerful people, World War I started. And so, in a way, does Leviathan.

This story continues to centre around two factions in an alternate version of World War I: the Clankers and the Darwinists. The Darwinists figured out how to ‘mix’ DNA and life threads to create hybrid creature-machines to breed the weapons and tools that they need to develop their industry and, now, win the war. The Clankers view the Darwinists’ activities, however, as ungodly and prefer to rely on engines and pistons to drive their ambitions forward.

Prince Aleksander is the (fictional) son of Franz and Sophia, forced to go on the run from those that want him out of the way of potential supporters. On the road with his former fencing instructor and an expert pilot, Alek finds himself running around the countryside in a tank-on-legs walker and learning how not to be a royally spoiled teen! There are of course some moments in which he is extremely frustrating but, worry not, he does become kind of loveable!

I was also kind of worried about Deryn at first and whether or not she would get on my nerves. As you’d expect for a girl in 1914), her pursuit of a career in the airforce is a big deal. My concern was that Deryn would just go on and on about it and it would get in the way of seeing more of her as a character. As it happens, that wasn’t the case at all! Deryn really does fit into the “man’s world” that she’s chosen and she does so without effort, without moaning and without it detracting from how downright brilliant she is. Her occasional rants about gender inequality, as with everything in this book, just fit. I appreciated her more for just getting on with making herself successful than I would have if she’d shoved her successes in my face all the time. Because that’s just the way I prefer things.

The alternative history elements of Leviathan are more deeply ingrained and complex than in other books that only have a vague grounding in a historical period. I won’t spoil the book for you by giving you any more details. Suffice it to say, this book is a very clever mix of fact and fiction (with a handy Afterword to tell you which was which, in case you find yourself confused!)

The creature-machine fabrications are fascinating and makes the story full of surprises. Just when you think you know where you are with the whale that’s also a flying machine, you’re hit with bats that eat metal and then expel it onto unsuspecting enemies. It’s unpredictable and just wonderful!

I really enjoyed the moral slant that occasionally creeps in too – genetic engineering and scientific development are hot moral property and frequently discussed in the media. Fortunately, these issues are acknowledged by the characters but are never out of kilter with the book as a whole or its characters. I have read books in the past where the author can’t help but use their characters as thinly-veiled mouthpieces for their political/scientific/moral ruminations and it always sticks out horribly. This book, however, has the perfect balance between allowing its readers to consider the implications of scientific advance without having to stomach an essay on it. I respected Westerfeld a lot for trusting in the intelligence of his readers that way.

And in case you’ve got this far and think that this book is all about science and politics, it isn’t. There are plenty of battles (as you’d expect in a war!) to keep things entertaining. Plus, of course, a whole host of the quirky inventions and action that makes steampunk so much fun. The story was a bit slow at first but after about 100 pages, I was utterly hooked and enjoyed every minute!

From reviews I read that were written by people who had also read Behemoth, this book is a lot about setting up the characters and their world so I’m really looking forward to seeing where they’re all taken. Needless to say, I will definitely be getting hold of the next instalment (to feed the ever-demanding steampunk addiction!). Particularly now that the last book in the trilogy, Goliath, is also hovering around the blogosphere taunting me.


Overall: There’s a fantastic ‘Afterword’ by Westerfeld that sums up what this book is much better than I ever could:

“So Leviathan is as much about possible futures as alternate pasts. It looks ahead to when machines will look like living creatures, and living creatures can be fabricated like machines. And yet the setting also recalls an earlier time in which the world was divided into aristocrats and commoners, and women in most countries couldn’t join the armed forces – or even vote.

That’s the nature of steampunk, blending future and past.”