Alek found himself deposited into the commander’s chair as the machine began to move. He struggled with the seat straps, but a terrible thought took hold of his mind, freezing his fingers.
If they’re trying to kill me…it’s all true.
Count Volger crouched beside him, yelling over the rumble of engines and gunfire. “Take heart at this impoliteness, Alek. It proves that you are still a threat to the throne.”
(from Leviathan, page 49)
Leviathan is the first book in the steampunk series of the same name, which presents an alternate history of World War I. The novel is set partly in Austria-Hungary, a Clanker nation that uses steam-driven iron machines as weapons, and Britain, a Darwinist nation that uses fabricated animals as weapons. The novel centers on Prince Aleksandar Ferdinand (Alek), son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who is on the run in a two-legged Cykolps Stormwalker with his fencing master, Count Volger, and his master of mechaniks, Otto Klopp, after his parents’ assassination.
Meanwhile, Deryn Sharp aims to become an airman in the British Air Service, so she disguises herself as Dylan Sharp. After managing to keep her head when a storm botches her air test on a Huxley, a jellyfish-like hydrogen breather, Deryn is rescued by the Leviathan. She soon becomes a member of the whale-like airship’s crew. When war breaks out between the Clankers and the Darwinists, Alek and Deryn are brought together as the factions — each needing something from the other — join forces to make a delivery of the utmost importance to Constantinople.
This was my first foray into steampunk, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Scott Westerfeld’s detailed descriptions of each Clanker machine and each fabricated animal, coupled with illustrations by Keith Thompson, make them come to life. Without being able to visualize their inner workings, I would have been lost, since their maneuverings make up a great chunk of the story. It’s obvious that the Clanker and Darwinist weapons are fiction, but Westerfeld plays with other historical details as well, and I was thankful for the afterword that sets everything straight.
Leviathan shines not just in its world-building but also in its characters. Alek and Deryn are both strong, admirable characters whose flaws are on full display throughout the course of the novel. They are both intelligent, quick thinkers, but they are also teenagers, and their secrets are nearly exposed several times due to their pride and foolishness.
Westerfeld manages to make both the characters and the alternate history believable, and the novel is perfectly paced with plenty of action to keep readers’ attention throughout. I wish all science fiction novels showed the same attention to detail as Leviathan, as I didn’t find myself questioning this world as much as I normally do when reading books in this genre. I finished this novel months ago (for my book club’s October selection, in fact), and it has stayed with me. I hope to finish the trilogy, which continues with Behemoth and Goliath, in the new year.
Disclosure: I borrowed Leviathan from the public library.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.