I requested Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld from the library and took it with me during our trip to visit family over the holidays. I didn’t get a chance to read on the trip, but my husband did. He devoured it in an afternoon and deemed it fantastic. This week, I finally made time for it, and it was every bit as well-written and captivating as he said it was.
Leviathan is set in an alternate steampunk past. It’s 1914 and WWI is brewing as the Clanker and Darwinist powers pit themselves against each other. The Clankers (including Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) use airplanes and steam-powered metal walking machines reminiscent of walkers from Star Wars. In this world, Darwin discovered not the process of natural selection, but the genetic material that makes it possible for animals to pass on their traits to their offspring. The Darwinists (Britain, Russia, and France) have capitalized on this knowledge and genetically-engineered “beasties” which they use as airships, ocean-going ships and land-based conveyances.
The book opens as one of the main characters, Prince Alexsander, the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand flees under cover of darkness with a walker and a crew of loyal men. Alex’s companions are willing to risk their lives to protect this young boy whose family would rather see him dead than watch lady-in-waiting’s son try to claim the Hapsburg throne. (Alex is a fictional character but the Archduke did have three children who were unable to inherit because their mother lacked royal blood.)
While Alex is learning the skills he needs to survive on the run, Deryn Sharp, a Scottish girl, disguises herself as a boy and joins the British Air Service, remaining constantly on guard for her secret to be revealed. After a mishap with a Huxley, a small hydrogen-breathing air ship resembling a jellyfish, she winds up as a crew member on the Leviathan, a huge ship based on the life threads of a whale but functioning as a complex eco-system utilizing bees, bats, lizards, gloworms, six-legged hydrogen-sniffing dogs and many other “beasties”.
The Leviathan makes an unusual landing in central London to pick up a lady boffin (a Darwinist scientist) carrying a secret cargo and bound for the Ottoman Empire which is expected to declare itself an ally of the Clankers. Tense battles, wild plans, political machinations, and scientific explanations abound as the main characters undertake their respective journies and eventually meet. The fantastic drawing of
A sequel, Behemoth, will be released in October 2010 and I can’t wait!