by Scott Westerfeld; Keith Thompson Book : Fiction : Secondary (senior high) school  |  1st Simon Pulse hardcover ed
Marvelous New Series Begins   (2010-02-11)
Westerfeld, Scott ~ Leviathan~ Simon Pulse, 2009 ~ 439 pages, and afterword ~ Audience: tweens, teens, adults ~ Rating: Superior.
“The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised. Behind them two ranks of diesel-powered walking machines stood ready to fire, cannon aimed over the heads of the cavalry.”
Leviathan is the first volume of a series. The second volume will be Behemoth to be released late in 2010.
Leviathan is set in an alternate 1914 Europe. Much of the setting is based on history, but there are some notable changes in technology and science as well as some minor changes in historical events and characters. Germany and its Austro-Hungarian alley are ready to go to war with Serbia. A leading Austrian royal and his wife are slain and war begins against Serbia. Others will join one side or the other.
The main difference here is that the two sides are divided by their technologies. The Darwinists, led by Great Britain, have developed biology to the state where their war machines and other technology is developed from living cells to create unusual but quite effective structures including the Leviathan which is a living naval airship. The Clankers, led by Germany, use machine based technology similar to that actually used in the “real” war.
The technology of the Clankers, especially the Stormwalker, a walking, clanking tank, is similar to the real thing, but is different enough to be just a bit fantastic. The biological technology of the Darwinists is fantastic but certainly believable in that it might have been possible with some heroic leaps in biological knowledge. The Darwinist creatures are a major and notably different aspect of the story.
This blend of real and fantasy works very well and creates a variety of interesting contrasts between the two sides.
Aleksander Ferdinand is, at 15, a prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire although there is some question about his status since his father married a commoner. His mother and father are killed to initiate the war. With a few members of his household, he attempts to flee to neutral Switzerland while the Austrians and the Germans attempt to stop him.
Deryn Sharp is a 16 year old girl who wants, more than anything else, to enlist in the all male British Air Service to follow her dead father and her brother. She changes her name to Dylan, alters her appearance, and enlists. Deryn is bright, quick to learn, and fearless. Due to an accident, she finds herself aboard the giant airship the Leviathan on its way to a secret mission in Constantinople. Along the way, she will meet Alec. Can Alec find safety? Can Deryn keep her sex a secret and continue to do what she loves? How will the war impact both?
Deryn wrestles with her fear of discovery and the tensions between her female and male identifies. She is an appealing, resourceful character. Alec is notably well educated, speaks foreign languages, is brave, but has little knowledge of the “real” world. He is driven to what is “right” regardless of the consequences. He too is appealing and a person that the reader quickly cares about. The tensions between the two illuminate their situations and their characters.
There are many well-done minor characters, but the character who will certainly play a much larger role in the future is Dr. Nora Darwin Barlow, the granddaughter of the great Darwin himself, a notable scientist and someone with considerable political power. She is responsible for and in charge of the secret mission.
As a young adult title, there is good white space throughout and a larger than usual dark print. The book is easily read. Binding is about average. What is outstanding are the illustrations by Keith Thompson, beginning with the colorful endpapers and then the many black and white illustrations found throughout the text. They are true to the story and add much to its quality and interest. The illustrations truly illuminate the story--a wonderful combination of text and image. Jacket art shows colorful images of gears and blades. Quite nicely done by Sammy Yueb Jr.
Westerfeld has been quite successful with his earlier books and Leviathan has received extraordinary notice and praise from critics in print and on the web. This series will be a most notable achievement and should be held in virtually all public libraries. Incorporating, history, alternative history, fantasy, and some SF elements, Leviathan has great cross-over appeal [if properly promoted].
A problem likely to be encountered in some libraries will be to place this title in the YA collection where many adults will miss it. Leviathan might also be used as a notable part of a display of fiction and nonfiction works about WWI that are different than the usual.
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