Monday, October 19, 2009

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about Scott Westerfeld for years now – probably the loudest bits have been from John Scalzi who is on record calling Westerfeld the ‘most significant SF writer’ writing right now and probably the best-selling SF writer. But Westerfeld writes YA books, which are often eschewed on principle by more ‘mature’ audiences. After I recently attended a Westerfeld signing event, I’ve finally picked up one of his books to see for myself.

Leviathan (
US, UK, Canada, Indiebound) is a steampunk alternative history re-telling of World War I where all the conspiracy theories on the cause of the Great War turn out to be true – along with more than a few ‘embellishments’ that that earn the alternative label. The Archduke Ferdinand has a teenage son named Aleksandar who is on the run from the Germans and Austrians who want him dead. A young girl in Britain enters the British Air Service disguised as boy so she can serve. These two are set on a collision course while war rages around them and conspiracies at the heart of WWI slowly unravel.

Leviathan is a YA story and the protagonists are indeed YA. The plot embraces some pretty standard tropes – a young, displaced noble suddenly on the run for his life accompanied by loyal, wizened, and sarcastic retainers, a young commoner who distinguishes herself amongst her piers and betters, a girl that pretends to be a boy, etc. Tropes become tropes because of universal appeal – and while they can be extremely tiresome when the portrayal is uninspiring, when they are done right, that universal appeal stands out. Westerfeld does tropes right. His writing is fully engaging in a way that should make all writers envious. His pace is electric. His characters are real and heartfelt that you can’t help but cheer for. And all this isn’t even the best part of the book.

Westerfeld’s vision of WWI is stunningly iconic – this is steampunk upped an order of magnitude. Huge walkers reminiscent of Star Wars’ Imperial Walkers rush to battle. Enormous zeppelins ply the skies for dominance. Mechanical scout vehicles put horses to shame. And this is just one side of the battle – the Clankers.

On the opposing side we have the Darwinists – where Clankers excel at mechanical prowess, the Darwinists excel at biology. DNA along with the ability to manipulate it was discovered by Darwin leading to society where engineered living beasts largely fill the role of mechanics. Submarines are engineered Krakens, dirigibles are engineered hydrogen-filled whales, beasts of burden rival any truck/tractor, bats shit fléchettes on the enemy, messaging lizards actually speak – basically whatever can be imagined can be engineered.

Westerfeld’s imaginative world of Clankers versus Darwinists with all the wonderful potentials made me feel like a kid again. Few books truly stoke the imagination the way Leviathan did for me – it easily rivals the best of Harry Potter. While all this set my imagination running, it was invaluably aided by the evocative illustrations of Keith Thompson. Westerfeld fought hard to get illustrations in Leviathan and they absolutely add an extra dimension.

For the most part, I just grabbed on and enjoyed the ride. However, I should warn that this book is but the first of a trilogy. I found no mention of this fact on the book jacket, which is certainly annoying and rather misleading. As a result, the book doesn’t end all that well – you could call it a cliff-hanger, but it doesn’t really feel that way. The end doesn’t really come at the end of a true story-arc, but rather the end of a part of an arc – I suppose it could be considered the end of the beginning. While perhaps appropriate for the first book of a trilogy, that’s little comfort if you didn’t know Leviathan was part of a series going in. Book 2, Behemoth, is expected in about a year with book 3, tentatively titled Goliath, about a year after that.

So, I’ve finally read New York Times Bestselling Author Scott Westerfeld, one of the most successful and exciting SFF authors out there today and an author that far too many adult SFF fans have not heard of. I’m impressed and I’ll definitely be reading more. 8/10


Jeff said...

I just finished this book today. It was fantastic. The clanker stuff was decent, but I was amazed at how well thought out the Darwinist animals were. The ecosystem that is the Leviathan really showed how well thought out and imaginative this alternate world is. It's too bad this may not be read by those who eschew YA books, as it is by far the best Science Fiction I've read this year.


ediFanoB said...

Good review! The book is own my list even it is categorized as YA.
There are books where you should trust reviewers!

Unknown said...

You know, I've been holding on "Leviathan" because it's YA. But you've convinced me to add it to my ever mounting To-Check-Out list.

I've got to stop reading book reviews or I'll never get to the end of my seemingly bottomless list. Then again, there are worse problems to have.


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