Review: ‘Leviathan’ by Scott Westerfeld

Prince Aleksander, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battletorn war machine and a loyal crew of men.

Deryn Sharp is a commoner, disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

With World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.

I can’t remember how Leviathan crossed my path. I think it might have been a sale on Audible? Regardless, I read some of the reviews and decided — despite my usual distaste for war fiction — to give Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk YA alternative history a go. The audiobook is narrated by Scottish actor Alan Cumming, whose accent gives the perfect voice to Deryn, an awesomely competent young adult heroine who shines as a new recruit in the British Air Service. But he also does an excellent Austrian accent for Alek, and his various British accents are also great.

Before I more talk about the characters, I have to mention Westerfield’s alternative world. Germany and Austria are “clankers”, countries that have embraced steampunk-type technology: oil-guzzling, smoke-blowing machines of various fantastical designs. Great Britain, Russia and a few other countries that are mentioned in passing are “Darwinists” who, instead of using technology, use genetically modified “fabricated” creatures in the same sorts of roles. (PETA would not approve of any of the Darwinist creations, and perhaps especially the Leviathan air ship, which is a huge whale modified to host bacteria that produce hydrogen so it can float, carrying humans underneath and within it. I shared Alek’s grossed out reaction to that last part.)

The Leviathan

Anyway, moving on: when Deryn gets whisked away on a rogue Huxley (a hydrogen-breathing floating squid — I’ll let that sink in) and is rescued by the Leviathan, she is drawn into a government diplomatic mission to Istanbul (not Constantinople *snigger*), to try and stop the Ottoman Empire from taking sides in the war.

The fact that Deryn is secretly a girl isn’t the focus of the story, by any means, which was a relief. For the most part, she is a member of the crew, invested in her ship’s wellbeing and surviving one disaster after the next. Because this is young adult and it’d be a rare book indeed that didn’t have some romance, she also slowly develops a crush on Alek that she doesn’t know what to do with.

I also enjoyed Alek’s point of view chapters. He spends the first little while being incredibly naive and somewhat foolish, but under the circumstances that was entirely believable and relatable. Over the course of the story, with the guidance of his cunning fencing master, Count Volger, and patient master mechanic, Master Clopp, Alek comes out of his over-protected shell and starts to make his own decisions — often ones that Volger doesn’t like.

There is a lot of action in this book, but the large-scale action sequences that I find boring in most war books aren’t present here. The chapters stay very tightly focused on either Deryn or Alek, so while there might be other things going on in a battle, we only see what they see. This approach — and the novelty of conducting a war using modified hawks and bats instead of small planes — kept me engrossed where other war fiction loses me.

My only real gripe with the story is that the ending seemed rather abrupt. But luckily, I bought the first two books in the trilogy at the same time, so as I write this I’m already halfway through the sequel. Yay!

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