Friday, May 21, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 107 (5/21) -- Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

I was one of the many editors who thought Scott Westerfeld told great stories, and then couldn't manage to figure out how to make people buy his books. In my case, it was a 2-in-1 of his Succession series -- which another editor, at Tor Books, had already bought, and gave vastly more time and effort than I did. (Not that it helped either of us -- the "Succession" books were a nifty space opera with great characters and some exciting space battles, but it never quite clicked with those fickle readers.) Luckily, some smarter editor did manage to make Westerfeld's books take off the way they always should have -- not too long after my failed attempt, actually -- and he's been one of the stars of YA fiction since then.

I haven't read as much of Westerfeld's work since then as I should have -- in part because his most famous and popular sequence, starting with Uglies, was both dystopian and about physical beauty; two things I'm not terribly excited by -- but the great thing about a working writer is that he keeps putting out more books. (And no one has time to read everything, anyway.) I was particularly happy to see Leviathan because it was a steampunk WWI novel, and I like the unlikely current flourishing of steampunk (even if I still don't understand it).

It's the summer of 1914, with the Allied and Central Powers -- or at least their militaries and governments -- itching for a new war that all sides are sure they can win quickly and easily. Westerfeld's world parallels our own, with the same nations, the same borders, even what seem to be all the same politicians and rulers, but there are two very important differences. First, Charles Darwin not only discovered evolution, but jump-started a revolution in bioengineering that has given the Darwinist nations (primarily Great Britain, France, and Russia) elephantine beasts of burden, living zeppelin-like airbeasts, and other useful biological creations. And on the other side of Europe are the Clankers, led by Germany and Austria-Hungary, who have developed purely mechanical marvels and clockwork contraptions, including a fleet of walking battle engines of all sizes from fleet scouts to heavily armed and armored dreadnoughts.

But Westerfeld's story isn't about machines and biological marvels, except in passing -- he's gotten this popular by writing about people, and he's got two great young characters at the heart of this story. And both of them have a huge secret.

Aleksandar Ferdinand is the grand-nephew of the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, but isn't in line for the throne himself due to his mother's relatively common blood. In the opening pages of Leviathan, the assassination of his parents in Sarajevo sends Alek and a few trusted retainers on a wild flight to the neutral safety of Switzerland, in a small Cyklop Stormwalker. He's the target of German assassination attempts, due to his father's role as a voice of peace and general bloody clearing-the-table sentiment, but -- by traveling quietly, and at night -- there's a good chance he can survive the war in an obscure bit of Europe and try to return when peace does.

On the same day, young Dylan Sharp is trying out to become a Midshipman in the British Air Service. But Dylan is actually Deryn, a young woman, and she'll be summarily drummed out of the service if her commanding officers find out. She quickly finds herself in the Service and on the gigantic Leviathan airship, ferrying a valuable and highly secret cargo -- and its minder, the much too intelligent and perspicacious "boffin" Dr. Nora Barlow -- to the Ottoman Empire.

So Leviathan sets those two viewpoint characters into alternate chapters, and sets them across Europe towards each other, one in a giant living airship and the other in a clanking, nightstalking walking tank, as their respective nations declare war on each other and start massing armies in the background. Of course they do meet, and of course their separate secrets complicate the issue -- not that that a Europe swiftly sliding into a vast new war isn't already complicated.

Leviathan is only the first in a trilogy, and the story isn't complete here -- Alek and Deryn's secrets aren't even revealed, let alone the cargo of the Leviathan and its purpose in Constantinople -- but there's enough of a stop at the end to make this satisfying as a book. (Though it does read much more like Book One of a multi-book series than like the first novel in a sequence of independent novels.) Along the way, Westerfeld has more of the splendid action scenes I remember fondly from "Succession," and his characterization is just as good.

(Leviathan is also heavily illustrated, with full-page illos by Keith Thompson roughly every chapter and some smaller pieces as well -- plus a great grotesque map of Europe on the endpapers.)
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: A Faulty Chromosome - This Is Far From A Belle Epoque
via FoxyTunes

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