Alek, son of the assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, is on the run for his life as war stirs in Europe. Along with his tutor and fencing master, 15-yr-old Alek treks across Europe in a steam-powered Stormwalker in an attempt to reach the safe grounds of neutral Switzerland.
Deryn Sharp is a 15-yr-old commoner from Britain who wants nothing more than to become an airman and fly on the Darwinist fabricated animal-machines. The problem: she’s a girl, and only boys are allowed to become airmen. Under the false identity of Dylan Sharp, she finds her way onto the Leviathan – a giant whale-ship that’s the crown of the British military.
Alternating storylines every couple chapters until the two collide, Westerfeld retells the events which led up to WWI in an alternate reality that pits steam-powered technology against genetic engineering.
I’m writing this buddy review with Kelly of The Written World.
Kelly: I always thought that book blogs were a bad influence, but Twitter has quickly became a close second! I was going to be good and get this from the library, but then everyone seemed to be talking about it when it came out and suddenly I found myself at the bookstore buying a copy. It was impossible not to once I saw it. It has a gorgeous cover and end pages. Then, there is the wonderful illustrations inside. It looks so wonderful on my shelf! The fact that I own none of his other books and still have several to read did not matter! I think the best way to start this is by me asking you if this book stood up to his other novels? It is obvious why you bought it because I read your blog.
Amanda: I’ve loved just about everything Westerfeld’s written, and yes, Leviathan stands up to that. On the one hand, it was a fun adventure story that pulled me along at a comfortable pace but didn’t make me feel tired. On the other, it taught me a little about history – I love Westerfeld’s end notes with what was fact and fiction – and had a great message about peace, tolerance, and cooperation. One of my favorite things about Westerfeld is the depth and richness of his books. It’s obvious he does a lot of research for each one, and it shows. I’ve become increasingly jaded about a lot of YA lately, because much of what I’ve read just doesn’t have much substance, but Westerfeld is different. Leviathan had a classic feel in a brand new genre.
Kelly: I am still a newbie to Westerfeld, so I will take your word for it! Everything I have read by him, though, I have read this year, so that is saying something. This is classified as a ‘steampunk’ novel. I have never really understood what that meant, so I could have read lots of them in the past and never thought of it that way. What did you think of the steampunk classification? Had you read much steampunk in the past? I recently read The Hunchback Assignment by Arthur Slade, which is also classified as steampunk. I think I liked this book better, though. History is one of my favourite subjects, so even though this was rewritten a bit I am still glad to learn more about a period of history. I agree with you on the addition of the end notes. They were very helpful!
Amanda: I know next to nothing about steampunk, but have been told that it’s alternate history assuming that Charles Babbage actually produced a functional difference engine – that’s what my husband says anyway. I actually have no idea what a functional difference engine is… but I sort of get the impression that steampunk is like taking mechanical technology back 100 years. Of course, Westerfeld also develops the “organic” steampunk idea in Leviathan with the idea that Darwin discovered DNA – what did you think about all the new species, and what they were used for?
Kelly: Yeah, I don’t know what a functional difference engine is either, but it sounds really smart! The idea of the difference species was actually very interesting. I think, like anything, it was a taken a bit too far at times, but the idea of flying vessels being alive was a very cool one. I also like the contrast between the two civilizations, so to speak. One was all about the Darwin inventions, but the other had gone an entirely different way and built fantastic machines. It makes you wonder if we had the technology today to alter DNA so drastically, would we? It would be an entirely different world if it was possible, that’s for sure. What did you think about it?
Amanda: Honestly, I kind of felt the same way as the Clankers did – while the idea of living machine-creatures is interesting, it sounds dangerous and unnatural to me. It’s like cloning in today’s world – and I’m not getting political here, I honestly don’t have opinion on the moral implications of cloning – it just creeps me out personally. The “beasties” did that to me, too. And beyond that, they just seemed really inefficient: when they broke, there wasn’t much could be done. While the Clanker’s machines also seemed inefficient (I smirked at the line that made fun of driving tanks on treads), they felt much more stable and less dangerous. To their owners, at least. But one of my favorite lines from the books came from the merging of the two technologies, when Deryn says, “We’re something different now…A little of us and a little of them.” That sort of wrapped up the whole message of the book for me – that cooperation and two sides contributing to a greater, better technology is the only way to survive and grow. What did you feel like Westerfeld was trying to say?
Kelly: I agree with you that the message was about cooperation being important for survival. I think that will continue to be an important part of the series. I also like to think he was saying that just because the technology is available to do something doesn’t mean that we have to do it. I think it is an important message. What did you think about the characters? Were they believable?
Amanda: Now first I should qualify my answer – I read this book in the middle of the night during Readathon – but I personally found the characters very believable. Alek, the fumbling, sheltered 15-yr-old son of an Archduke trying to prove himself in the real world but mucking everything up. Deryn, a 15 yr old tomboy pretending to be Dylan, a 16 yr old midshipman applicant, fumbling with her attempts to act boyish when all she really wants to do is fly. And then there’s the count and Dr. Barlow and all the rest – they all felt round and intricate, as if Westerfeld knew them personally. But I’ve always liked the way Westerfeld creates his characters. I think that’s one of his strong points, as well as language play. I read in one of his books, I believe Bogus to Bubbly, that he refines his alternate-world slang by using it himself to make sure it sounds natural. It’s so much fun to imagine him walking around saying, “Blisters!” when he swears or using words like “boffin” and “clart.” Had you heard that?
Kelly: Yes, I believe it was in Bogus to Bubbly because I have read about that, too, and I read that book at some point this year. I think it is really great that he tries things out. There isn’t really very much I want to say about the characters that you haven’t all ready touched on. I thought they were written really well. I found myself, though, talking to them in my head because they really do some things that you know something bad is going to happen, but I think it is a mark of a good character when the reader gets caught up in the story so much that they are very invested in what happens to the characters. I look forward to future books to see what happens to them next and how their tentative friendship works out. Is there anything else that you want to talk about?
Amanda: Nope, I think that pretty much covers everything. I can’t wait for Behemoth to come out next year. Supposedly it will be released in October. At the same time, though, I liked where this book ended – a cliff-hanger, but a mild one. You aren’t automatically itching for the next one, like with The Knife of Never Letting Go. It works well as a standalone book, too. But yes, that’s all. I love Westerfeld, and I think he did a magnificent job as usual for this book.
Kelly: Oh, good to know when the second book comes out. I haven’t thought that far ahead to look into it! I am looking forward to it, too, but I don’t have to rush out read it. I can wait. I much prefer that, actually. A promised sequel but not a huge book that is not wrapped up at all and then you have to wait a year to find out what happens next. Hopefully we will both still be blogging next year and then maybe we can review the sequel together, too! Thanks for reviewing this book with me. I look forward to next time!
Amanda: That’s an excellent idea! I look forward to it, too.