Monday, December 6, 2010

The War to End All Wars

Leviathan & Behemoth
by Scott Westerfeld
Locus Award for Best Young Adult Fiction 2010 (Leviathan)

In the first installment of Westerfeld's new trilogy, Leviathan, we are introduced to Alek, the sheltered son of the recently assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Deryn Sharp, a Scottish girl pretending to be a boy in order to serve in the Royal Air Force. For the first third of the novel or so, the chapters alternate between the two characters, allowing readers to familiarize themselves not only with the two leads, but also with the disparate societies from which they come: the machine-obsessed Clankers and the life-fabricating Darwinists. Our heroes finally meet when Alek, while on the run from German forces, witnesses the crash of the British airship Leviathan in the snowy Alps, and, despite his better judgement, decides to aid its crew. Not long after, the story truly gets under way when Alek's men join forces with the Leviathan after another German attack.

The story moves at a breakneck pace, often spending more time detailing the design of various machines and battle maneuvers, rather than developing the characters, which was a major complaint of mine. I knew as I began Leviathan that it was the first of a trilogy, but compared to other such books, it felt more like set-up, not a story that could stand on its own. Additionally, the novel claims to be a steampunk alternate history of WWI, but aside from changing the axis and allies to Clankers and Darwinists, there is little difference with reality. However, since Westerfeld decided to create his own heir, rather than use one of the Archduke's real children, it is possible that in later volumes the course of history will veer from our own.

Despite the first volume's apparent flaws, I still decided to read Behemoth, and I am glad that I did. This second installment is much more like a novel than a screenplay (unlike its predecessor), and a decent amount of character development is present. The novel's setting of Istanbul also provides a new cast of characters, as well as a plotline heavy on intrigue and politics, as both the British and Germans attempt to gain the Ottoman Empire as an ally.

Consistent throughout both novels are two things: the writing style and the illustrations (drawn by Keith Thompson). Given that the series is set during WWI (and steampunk, on top of that!), I would have liked to see a writing style reminiscent of the period, at least in the characters' speech, if not the exposition. Unfortunately, Westerfeld does not deliver, and while his writing is serviceable, it is not very impactful. Thompson's illustrations, on the other hand, are a sheer delight. There are typically one or two such pictures per chapter (all in black and white), and they served as a great aid in depicting the various machinery described in the book.

Even with its flaws, the Leviathan trilogy is proving to be an enjoyable one, and I only hope that the final installment, Goliath (to be released in October 2011), improves upon the series yet more.

Leviathan: B-
Behemoth: B+


  1. If you didn't love this series, try The Uglies series by the same author. I got a bit bored by the third book, but the concept was absolutely fascinating.

  2. I have been meaning to read that actually. It is one of many books on my list.

  3. Have you read the Midnighters trilogy? Midnighters may be my favorite Westerfeld books, though I do love the Leviathan books. Have you looked at Keith Thompson's website? He has lots of prints from the books and they are gorgeous. Also I got to meet Scott Westerfeld a couple months ago at an Authors Talk to Teens event, and his talk/slideshow was great (he talks about stuff like illustrated books and how that used to be the norm), and he was lovely. :)

  4. No, this was the first Westerfeld series I've had the chance to read. I really loved having the illustrations present in the books, but it was a little embarrassing to have other passengers on the train see them. I already look like a little girl, so illustrated books don't help people take me seriously.