Author: Scott Westerfield
Page Count: 440 pages
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Copy for review compliments of the public library
50 words or less: A stunning re-imagining of the events leading up to WWI. British Darwinists use genetically engineered animals as machines of war; mechanical zealot Germans and Austro-Hungarians use Clankers- actual machines of war. An archduke is murdered, his son escapes, a girl disguises herself to join the Service. Chaos and adventure ensue!
My first thoughts upon finishing Leviathan as recorded on Twitter for posterity were "Holy freaking crap, Leviathan was excellent. EXCELLENT." There is so much to talk about in this book that shoehorning it all into a review of reasonable length is going to be a challenge, but hey, that's how we do it here.
Anyway, I'd heard a ton of great things from a variety of sources about this book so I was SUPER excited to read it. I'm always a little apprehensive going into books that I'm this excited for as I feel like disappointment will be that much more profound if I end up not liking the book. Happily, that was definitely not an issue here!
Steampunk as a genre may well prove false the idea that truth is stranger than fiction. In Leviathan, the two primary opponents of World War I are armed with technology that's vastly different from anything they really had at the time- the British are Darwinists who've taken the ideas of natural selection and biological engineering to create huge creatures that are amalgamations of a bunch of other ones; the namesake of the book, the ship Leviathan is alive. It's a fully functioning ecosystem within itself that consists of lots of interconnected creatures and lives, just like an ecosystem found in nature.
In contrast, the Austro-Hungarians believe that Darwinisim is a steaming pile of excrement and that the Darwinists themselves are godless heathens. Their faith lies instead in the world of machinery, with Clankers of varying degrees of complexity, all of them formidable nonetheless. The two sides are spoiling for a fight; by the end of Leviathan (and as history has shown us) they have one.
The overlying conflict plays out on a much smaller scale between Alek, the son of assassinated Franz Ferdinand, and Deryn/Dylan, a girl masquerading as a boy so she can join the military for Britain. They form a shy friendship and an uneasy alliance; the supporting characters go a long way in helping these two grow up as they have both their individual and combined adventures.
Can I just say now how hard it is to talk about this book without giving away something cool? Just saying.
The world building in Leviathan is top-notch, with really interesting and exciting details at every turn. I was reminded of the level of detail and information that J.K. Rowling included in the Harry Potter books. Everything is explained in a way that makes sense but doesn't presume a level of knowledge that the characters wouldn't have had, given the rules that the author has laid out for this world. I think that's really important; a huge part of steampunk's appeal is being fantastic enough to be different but close enough to reality for the parallels to be apparent.
I also appreciated that the characters were as aware of the social and political implications of their actions as people of their corresponding backgrounds would have been at that time, but there's no funky woo woo knowledge of how things will turn out. It made the whole setup seem more realistic and allowed the cleverness of the rest of the book to shine through. Essentially, history is playing out way it actually did in real life, but by traveling down entirely imaginary paths.
There is a ton more that I could say about Leviathan but my feelings are best summed up as follows: read it. Read it now. Stop what you're doing, go to the library or the bookstore, and get a copy and read it. Enjoy it. Perhaps read it again. Thank you.
Overall Grade: A++
Do you need more convincing? Here's the book trailer:
I hope I haven't been unclear.