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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Title: Leviathan, Book One in a series
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Illustrator: Keith Thompson
Reviewed Format: UK hardcover
Release Date: September 29, 2009
Pages: 448

How do you get a 15-year old boy to do exactly what you want him to do? Ask him if he’s too scared to do it. At least, that’s how two men under his father’s service manage to convince Aleksander Ferdinand--heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne--to leave the safety of his rooms, abandon his mock battle toys, and put his Cyklop Stormwalker lessons to practical use in the middle of the night to drive his fencing and driving instructors, and a handful of other men loyal to the throne as far away from home as possible. Leviathan is Steampunk, you see, and the nature of the genre is providing readers with an alternate history--in this case, it’s the summer of 1914 and Eastern Europe is rife with tension. What Alek doesn’t know is his parents have been assassinated in Serbia, poisoned in an attempt at provocation; someone certainly wants war.

This war, however, won’t be waged with mustard gas or in trenches; Aleksander’s Great War is one split down the middle of two factions: the Clankers and the Darwinists. The Clankers depend on mechanics and steam power, man-made machines with legs that mimic animals and firepower that rivals the creative weaponry and biotechnology of their rivals. The Darwinists are inspired by Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution. In Leviathan, the mystery of DNA --brought forward a few decades for the sake of plot--has been discovered and manipulated to create crossbreeds of animals and huge, living dirigibles as part of their military power.

The Leviathan is one of these airships--one of the biggest--in which a young girl, Deryn Sharp, manages to serve aboard after an accident during her practical entrance exams leaves her stranded among its crew. Stranded isn’t the word Deryn--or Dylan as she’s known to her new crew members--would use; blessed is more like it. She’s looked forward to this day for as long as she can remember, but being a girl hasn’t made it easy. Women aren’t allowed to joined the military, but Deryn’s brother--already an airshipman--has helped her study and perfect her disguise as Dylan, the boy. Their ruse has worked so far, but Deryn is in for more than she ever could have expected. Before the Leviathan can return Deryn, Alek’s parents are killed and war declarations start cropping up across Eastern Europe, summoning the huge airship to a highly secretive mission that involves a thylacine, a zookeeper, talking lizards, and a batch of eggs.

Leviathan is funny and creative--Scott Westerfeld has imagined a world out of the depths of evolutionary history. As he writes in the Afterword, “Leviathan is as much about possible futures as alternate pasts. It looks ahead to when machines will look like living creatures and living creatures can be fabricated like machines” (p.439). Not to run away with the possibilities of what seems to be a technologically evolved society, Westerfeld has tempered those advancements with the realities of social politics as they existed at the beginning of the 20th Century: women can’t vote or join the military; the divide between the aristocracy and the general public has never been more clear; distrust runs high for all technology based on ignorance and gross misunderstanding, religious and personal belief. To be fair, technophobia still exists, but in the case of the Darwinists versus the Clankers, personal preference and biased ideals over the dominant technological advancements are strong enough to start one of the most vicious wars in history.

In the middle of it all there is Deryn and Alek, 15-year old vulnerable sweethearts who only want to do what’s right. Both are very new to the ways of the worlds they’ve been thrust into: Deryn, the floating home of the airshipmen; Alek, the politics of being the heir to an empire. In their youthful exuberance, it’s encouraging to see their idealism isn’t jaded by attitudes of those in charge who, in their age and experience, have turned more pragmatic than hopeful. Unfortunately, the innocence of youth keeps getting them into trouble with their more experienced, cautious, and suspicious adult counterparts. The friendship they develop is really quite endearing against the politics surrounding them, determined to drive them apart. It’s touching and very understandable that two children, who represent so much of what each side stands for, are able to set aside their differences and begin to learn from each other. Deryn teases Alek about his irrational fears and disgusts over the conglomeration of living bodies that make up the Leviathan; Alek makes sure Deryn sees the advantage of machines. In between their banter is the truth of the situation: the survival of everything dear to them depends on teamwork; biotechnology is as necessary as gears, metalwork, and engines. Cooperation is the key to success.

My favorite character had to be Dr. Barlow. She’s sharp and intelligent, British, and far removed (in belief) from the petty squabbles that would deny the advances of any science to any country for the sake of political advantage. She’s a true scientist, but also a humanist and becomes a confidant to Alek and Deryn, entrusting them with the secret of her mission. Westerfeld’s writing lends itself more to this type of commentary than anything else. He examines our world from a different perspective, but arrives at an interesting conclusion: does it really matter what advances are made, in any form, for any society, if those advances are greedily kept to a select few countries or people? What are the repercussions of keeping others ignorant on purpose? Does it really matter which group of people have the advantage or is it more a question of how it’s used?

He wrestles with duty against morals, juxtaposing the order of the military against the plight of mercy. As Deryn finds out, doing one’s duty can have its consequences; sometimes it’s up to us to make the hard calls when we start to believe that the rules were sometimes meant to be broken. I like the socio-political commentary that comes with Westerfeld’s book, the engines that drive his SF novels and project them as much into our past as into our near future. His themes reverberate widely and remind us to consider which is most to our advantage: helping just ourselves or helping both ourselves and others?

Thank you to Simon & Schuster UK for sending me a review copy of this book to review! :)


Lily Child said...

I have been hesitant to pick this up because of Westerfeld's Specials series, which I was hugely disappointed in. However, I have seen another stellar review in regards to Leviathan. It definitely sounds intriguing! Thanks for your review! :)

Also, I see that you are reading Catching Fire. I just finished that one myself! Can't wait to read what your thoughts on it! Happy reading!

Erika said...

I highly recommend Leviathan! There's absolutely fantastic illustrations inside drawn by Keith Thompson. I hear the US edition has a beautiful map inside, too. This is one of my favorites. :)

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