Leviathan is the first book in the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfield. It was released in 2009 and followed by Behemoth (2010) and the forthcoming Goliath (TBR Oct 2011) It won the Aurealis Award for Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror in Australia in 2010. The audio book version is read by actor Alan Cummings.
Leviathan has been tagged with the steampunk label but don’t let that confuse you, you don’t need to have any knowledge of the genre to appreciate it as it’s a solid YA fantasy yarn that is a pleasurable and fast read. It’s been on my must read list for a while as i’m interested to see how the steampunk genre will develop over the next few years as it grows from literary new kid on the block to mainstream genre. In that respect, it was a good place to start for anyone, like me, that is new to the genre.
Set against the alternate history back-drop of the start to World War 1, the German mechanically minded ‘Clankers’ and their powerful, destructive creations seek to face off against the ‘Darwinists’ nations like Britain, who have engineered living creatures into their tools and ships. The story is told from two main points of view, the Clanker point of view coming from Austro-Hungarian Prince Aleksandr, with the Darwinist view coming from Brit Deryn Sharp.
Alek’s peace advocating parents are murdered and he is taken on the run by two of his father’s most trusted aides, Wildcount Volger and master mechanic Otto Klopp. They steal away in a heavily armoured walking machine and head for the neutral territory of Switzerland. After a long and perilous chase they escape their pursuers and hole up in a Swiss castle, intending to hide out and return to Austria when it is safe, only to find their stay interrupted when the Leviathan, the huge whale like, Darwinist engineered flag ship of the UK Air Force crash lands nearby due to fierce fire from the Clanker Army. Alek sees the injured soldiers and having never seen a ship like the Leviathan, decides to take a closer look and leave some medical supplies to help the injured but is caught by Dylan Sharp.
Dylan Sharp is a Mid-shipman serving on the Leviathan, and he has a secret, no-one knows that he is really Deryn Sharp, a girl, and females are prohibited from serving!
With their hideaway now a target for the Clankers aiming to capture the Leviathan Alek, Klopp and Volger join the Leviathan as it takes off, headed to Constantinople on a top secret mission with a VIP passenger and her mysterious cargo on board.
It took me about a third of the book to really get into this story. I wasn’t expecting the WW1 back drop at all, and it initially put me off as world war based fiction really isn’t to my taste, but perseverance really paid off! By the end of the book I was really happy that I already had it’s sequel, Behemoth, to read straight after! The characters are very engaging and likeable, Westerfield’s imaginative mechanical and biological creations are richly described and the book is scattered with stunning illustrations by Keith Thompson. The plot moves along at a good pace and is complicated enough to make you pay attention without being so complicated that it’d lose younger readers. There’s enough variety of plotlines to keep readers of both sexes happy, although a fair amount of the plot is based around the growing war, the adventure, fantastic machines, out of this world bio creations and the struggle that the plucky Deryn has to prove herself as an equal to her male counterparts whilst not revealing her secret provide a great balance that prevents the book from being too male orientated.
The best parts of this story are undoubtedly Westerfield’s rich and vivid descriptions of the machines, both mechanical and biological, despite being purely from the realm of fiction his descriptions not only give them colour and life, but almost makes them sound viable! I like the sense of life that he builds into the characters, they have unusual expressions of alarm and fright such as ‘barking spiders!’ and insults of ‘monkey luddites’ that are just hilarious and sure to endear them to readers old and young alike. I also liked the very subtle messages about sustainable eco systems and recycling that Westerfield conveys, aboard the Leviathan he makes it clear that each living part of the ship relies on the care and output from other organisms on board, and with the Clanker machines the recycling message is shown when Alek needs to repair his walker and seeks parts that have been reclaimed from farm equipment, they are subtle but very valid messages.
What I didn’t like, at least initially, was the WW1 back drop. It has great potential to alienate and divide readers. It doesn’t make for an obvious setting for a fantasy novel and could be very bleak in the wrong hands, that being said, it is skillfully handled so once you get into the book and the story unfolds this does not become an issue, Westerfield conveys no judgement nor opinion on historically which side was ‘right’.
I think this book has a solid all round appeal to most readers, with elements of imaginative fantasy, adventure, secret plots, fantastic creature creations, a feisty heroine and courageous hero. For readers wanting to explore the steam punk/ alt history fantasy genres this is a great book to start with, and fans of Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series should enjoy Leviathan and it’s sequels. I wouldn’t recommend it for readers of the fantasy romance genre as although there are a couple of hints of interest in Alek from Deryn’s point of view, Alek remains firmly unaware that she is female so there is no romantic sub-plot developed in this book.
I rate this book 8.5, a great first instalment to the series, and I look forward to reading the sequels.
Review by Jules Grant
Gary from UK
This is a decent novel, though I found the characters to be a bit bland. Though Scott Westerfeld does a good job of differentiating his characters, I find the dialogue to be complete rubbish. I understand that in the early periods of the 20th century there will be a strange type of British colloquialism but I honestly found myself quite irritated by hearing a young girl call other people "bum rags" "plook heads" or yell out "blisters" and "barking" frequently. The action scenes were very well drawn out but there was a scarce of excitement due to the lack of characters one would actually care for.
7.8/10 from 2 reviews
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