Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Steampunk! Steampunk! Steampunk! The word’s all over the blogs and book sites, all over Twitter. I’m even thinking of naming my next dog “Steampunk.” And yet, there’s nothing new about the genre. If you count Jules Verne, this stuff’s been around for at least 150 years.
What is new is steampunk’s growing popularity in the young adult market. D.M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo, Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines—the list of imaginative, engaging titles for YA readers keeps growing. And though no steampunk novel has yet reached the heights of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, it’s probably only a matter of time.
So, enter Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, the newest addition to the steampunk catalog. Westerfeld (author of the terrific Uglies series) doesn’t do anything very different from his predecessors. He’s got the historical period (World War I, in this case) to monkey around with. He’s got the elaborate, steam-driven machines and disgusting bio-mechanico hybrids. He’s even got a war between the two technological societies. But the one thing he does that most steampunk novels fail to do is tell a story even a 10-year old can understand.
The story starts with Prince Aleksandar, 15-year old son of Archduke Ferdinand, getting whisked away on the night his father and mother are assassinated. He and his guardians escape in a “walker,” a tank that moves on mechanical legs instead of treads, and they are chased by even bigger walkers and other monstrous mechanical devices. The goal? Get Alex to a safe place and wait out the war.
Enter our second character: 15-year old Deryn, a Scottish girl who’s disguised herself as a boy to join the British Air Service. Where the Germans and Austrians do everything with steel and steam, the Brits build everything from genetically engineered animals. So Deryn’s ship is a giant whale with a host of symbiotic creatures living inside its gut. The creatures expel hydrogen, filling the whale, and what should be a gentle ocean-bound giant becomes a high-flying military airship.
As you might expect, Alex and Deryn eventually cross paths. The collision between their different technologies, cultures, politics and personalities not only provides great tension and pathos, but also sends them careening toward the very center of the Great War.
Leviathan is a fun read, and Westerfeld tells it well. But what really makes Leviathan stand out is its accessibility. Most steampunk novels sag a little (or a lot) under the weight of their historical and technological details. In the worst cases, it’s enough to make your eyes roll back in your head. But Westerfeld has struck a balance, creating a world rich enough to fascinate, but simple enough that even the youngest YA reader can understand what’s going on. That’s no small feat in this genre.
Finally, I have to mention one non-literary reason to rush out and buy Leviathan: the beautiful artwork. From the stunning cover and end-papers to Keith Thompson’s captivating black-and-white drawings, the pages of Leviathan are as much fun to look at as they are to read. And that’s saying a lot.