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Leviathan
Book
2009
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  New York Times Review

SCOTT WESTERFELD'S "Leviathan" is a tightly paced young adult novel set in an alternate version of the First World War and a welcome addition to the steampunk genre: a neo-retro period adventure. Just as cyberpunk reimagined science fiction with computers, steampunk reinvents it through a fantasy of the technological past. Its signature style is a whimsical Jules Verne-ian, 19th-century take on high technology - gadgets, gauges and goggles take the place of circuits and fusion reactors. Its genteel heroes and heroines display both the pluck of idealized Victorian adventurers and their understanding of formal dress. Westerfeld is best known for his sci-fi Uglies series ("Pretties," "Specials," "Extras," etc.), about a future society in which people have a surgical procedure at age 16 that makes their faces beautiful but their minds frivolous and easily controlled. "Leviathan" is different. If it poses a big question, that question would be, Wouldn't it be cool if the First World War had been fought with genetically engineered mutant animals, against steam-powered walking machines like the ones from "The Empire Strikes Back"? And the answer is, Yes, it would. The book begins the night the Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated and his son, Aleksandar, flees his home near Prague to escape being made a target or a tool as the potential heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. (Aleksandar is an invention, but like Ferdinand's real children, he is not a fully legitimate heir to royal lands or titles, since his mother has "common blood.") At the other end of Europe, a working-class Scottish girl named Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the British Air Service. Intrigue and political instability sweep the teenagers out of their normal lives and into a world at war. It's not quite our world. In this version of history, Europe is divided between two rival technological cultures, a Mac-versus-PC contest on a geopolitical scale. The British, the "Darwinists," have mastered the science of bioengineering. The Central European powers are the "Clankers," and they use airplanes, zeppelins and walking machines that tramp through forests and fields. (We aren't told what the French do, and I think that's for the best.) "Leviathan" shines when it lets us inhabit these cultures. British society is permeated by its signature technology, an inventive living infrastructure of a thousand elements, from lizards that can mimic and record voices to tiger-like beasts of burden to the leviathan of the title, a living dirigible grown on the genetic chassis of a whale. This marvelous creature makes a lovely entrance: "The Leviathan's body was made from the life threads of a whale, but a hundred other species were tangled into its design, countless creatures fitting together like the gears of a stopwatch. . . . The motivator engines changed pitch, nudging the creature's nose up. The airbeast obeyed, cilia along its flanks undulating like a sea of grass in the wind - a host of tiny oars rowing backward, slowing the Leviathan almost to a halt. The huge shape drifted slowly overhead, blotting out the sky." Westerfeld's imagery is enhanced by Keith Thompson's old-fashioned black-and-white illustrations, which lend an extra dimension of reality to this world. And the Darwinist and Clanker jargon crackles with an authentically techie feel. Who wouldn't want to go up in a "Huxley ascender" or pilot a "Wotan-class land frigate"? If Westerfeld has a signature foible, however, it's a weakness for invented teenage slang that ends up being more distracting than colorful. No amount of repetition made "Barking spiders!" feel like a natural exclamation. I ALSO wanted to like Deryn and Alek more. There's something a little mechanical (or bioengineered?) about this pair; they resemble something called a "young adult protagonist" more than they do actual teenagers. It's not that they're not pleasant to be around, and each one passes a dramatic series of trials, overseen by a mysterious British lady scientist and a cranky Teutonic fencing master who both possess a charisma that makes you miss them when they're offstage. Deryn and Alek lack the psychological sloppiness that makes for a living presence rather than an expert piece of craft. Where their feelings are concerned, the prose is a little vacant, as if scrubbed of the messiest and most personal aspects of growing up. And then there's the unpleasantness of fighting in World War I. The Great War in "Leviathan" is a little too picturesque, a little too much of a lark. As novels like "The Red Badge of Courage" show, it's possible to reach young readers without editing out the catastrophe and confusion of wartime. This isn't to say that "Leviathan" is a superficial book. As Westerfeld writes in his afterword, the novel is "as much about possible futures as alternate pasts." Its larger themes are less apparent and more deeply buried than in the Uglies books, and are the more powerful for it. The novel is a study in opposites, of boy versus girl, working class versus aristocracy, British versus German, and its overlying thematic division of Darwinists and Clankers gives all of these a distinctive torque, while avoiding mapping neatly to any specific agenda. The novel's concluding set piece features a grand, elegant and very satisfying hybridization that suggests that opposites can meet, collapse and mingle, and that this story has natural sequels, which I will undoubtedly read. Europe is divided between Darwinists and Clankers, and an airbeast rules the skies. Austin Grossman is the author of "Soon I Will Be Invincible," a novel.

  Booklist Review

Instead of the Victorian era most often found in the steampunk genre, Westerfeld sets his new series in a Europe hovering on the edge of World War I. The ingenious premise is that Europe is divided not only into traditional historical camps, but also into Darwinists, who genetically manipulate animal life-strands into beasts and even whole self-contained ecosystems with wondrous capabilities, and Clankers, whose imposing constructions of metal and gears are a marvel of technological wizardry. Deryn Sharp, from Darwinist England, disguises herself as a boy to enlist on the Leviathan, a flying whale-ship, while Prince Alek, recently orphaned son of Archduke Ferdinand, finds himself on the run in a sort of walking Clanker tank. The plot is boosted almost entirely by exciting and sometimes violent fight sequences, but reading about (and seeing, thanks to Thompson's ample, lavish, and essential illustrations) the wildly imaginative creatures and machines provides nearly as much drive. Fans of Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines (2003) or Kenneth Oppel's Airborn (2004) will be right at home in Westerfeld's alternate reality.--Chipman, Ian Copyright 2009 Booklist

  Kirkus Review

The fate of many rests in the hands of an Austrian schoolboy and a British airman, both in disguise. Alek is the son of the recently assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, hiding from European nations hostile to his father. Midshipman Dylan is really Deryn, a girl passing as a boy in order to serve in the British Air Service. Alek has fled home in a steam-powered Stormwalker, one of the great manned war machines of the Central Powers. Meanwhile, Deryn's berth is on a massive airbeast, a genetically engineered hydrogen-breather, one of the Darwinist ships of the Allied Powers. The growing hostilities of what is soon to become the Great War throw the two together, and Darwinists and Clankers must work together if they all want to survive. Two Imperial forces meet, one built with steam and the other built with DNA, producing rich, vivid descriptions of the technologies that divide a continent. The setting begs comparisons to Hayao Miyazaki, Kenneth Oppel and Naomi Novik, but this work will standor flyon its own. (Science fiction. 12-15) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Summary
It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet.<br> <br> Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men.<br> <br> Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She's a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.<br> <br> With the Great War brewing, Alek's and Deryn's paths cross in the most unexpected way...taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever.
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