Monday, October 5, 2009

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

I'll post this review on the eve of Leviathan's official release, in hopes of generating a bit more buzz, if that's even possible. I will admit, I was pretty psyched about reading this book, and so I did sneak a peek at the first chapter before I went off on vacation, and I liked what I saw immediately. I knew I would, thanks to Abby's excellent review. I'd not heard about this book before it, and decided I must have a copy of my own after it.

First though, let me say that this book is gorgeous. Of course the contents are important, and I'll get to that in a minute -- but this book is just beautiful. The font is nice, the paper is thick, the illustrations by Keith Thompson are absolutely perfect, the insides of the covers are just stunning. A lot of thought has gone into the presentation of this story, I think, and I like that a lot. It makes the price of a hardback more than worth it. So, kudos to the Simon Pulse imprint for that.

In case you've missed it (there's been a fair bit of blogger buzz about this book) the plot rolls something like this. It is the eve of the First World War. Alek is a Hapsburg prince, possible heir to the throne of Austro-Hungaria, rousted out of his bed in the middle of the night by two of his tutors and taken on a journey that quickly becomes mortally dangerous. Deryn is a fifteen-year old girl, desperate to fly, desperate enough to disguise herself as a boy and join the British Air Force. By luck, both good and bad, these two with deep secrets end up together on the British airship Leviathan. And, at the end of the book, their journey has really just begun.

I feel it's my duty to warn you now. There are a lot of unresolved questions at the end of this book, not the least of which is whether everyone is going to survive. I cringe at the thought of how long I have to wait for the next one (October 2010 - one. whole. year. *wails*)

Everyone includes the ship, because Leviathan is a Darwinist creation, a fabricated animal. In Westerfeld's alternate history, Darwin not only discovered evolution, but he discovered DNA and how to manipulate it. Using his techniques, scientists (Deryn charmingly calls them "boffins" and they all wear bowlers, which is awesome) are able to create chimeric creatures that replace most of what machinery would do in our familiar history. Leviathan, for example, is nominally a whale-type creature, but she flies in the air using hydrogen she excretes and captures in a series of hydrogen bladders. The Darwinists have created these animals in very intricate ways, and a big airship like Leviathan is actually an entire functioning ecosystem.

Lest you think our industrial age is forgotten, however, there are also Clankers: some countries have become extremely technically advanced, shunning Darwinist creations as "ungodly" and creating great engines and machines, tank-like walkers and airplanes running on fossil fuels, to match the Darwinist creations. And the Darwinists and the Clankers are both morally and technologically opposed -- and thus, there is war. While Westerfeld has the same trigger for the war as happened in our timeline, many of the surface reasons for the war are different.

The world Westerfeld has created is both really cool and not one I would want to live in. I don't like the idea of the Clankers, the filthy, destructive, fossil-fuel guzzling machines they create -- but I also have a lot of trouble with the idea of living creatures as war machines and tools. I've always thought that the stories of bats and pigeons and dogs and dolphins trained to be weapons of war are sickening. War is a human endeavour, and animals should have no part in it, whether they've been created for that purpose or not. When the ship Leviathan is strafed with machine gun fire, she feels pain; as a "whale," I'm pretty sure she's intelligent enough to feel fear when attacked, and yet she's driven right into battle. And I really don't like that thought at all.

So it's a very interesting read from that perspective, and will likely stand up as a book that both adults and kids can read and have deep discussions about. But that's not all. The characters that move in this world Westerfeld has created are compelling. Both Alek and Daryn are intelligent, brave, and flawed human beings, desperate to keep their secrets and do what they feel is right. Alek in particular made me shake my head at points, but the things he did were still internally consistent with who he was.

Deryn was a little crazy but I especially liked her. She's funny, too; her ways of speech are filthy (without actual swearing) and her observations of others are often dead on. And while I'm not often a fan of the "I'm really just pretending to be a boy!" character, I completely understand and sympathize with Deryn's reasons. There is no way she would be allowed to be where she is, doing what she does, if she'd applied for the Air Force as a girl, so deception -- and the associated dishonesties even with those she grows fond of -- is absolutely necessary.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. I'd recommend it to anyone with a taste for fast-paced adventure. People who have read and liked Airborn by Kenneth Oppel especially will probably also like this book, although it does have a completely different flavour. I haven't read anything else by Westerfeld, but I'd be interested to hear from someone who has read this and his Uglies books, to see what they think. And I'll definitely be picking up Uglies some day soon.

Next I had to read something that has nothing to do with war, violence, or murder. That's right: historical romance. I've been laying it on rather heavy lately, with the war and the crime fiction. Needed something happy, something pink: stay tuned for a review of Mary Balogh's First Comes Marriage.


Mandy said...

I am on the fence about Leviathan. It starts out with a bang and that quick forward momentum just keeps going. It made me feel a little tired reading it. There is so much adventure that I yearned for more in the dialogue, some more insights and politics. There are these things in the book but not enough. And this is only my first emotional reaction. The story itself, the ideas behind it, are pretty unique. Steampunk is pretty big now, or will be big soon, and Leviathan has acomplished it exactly. The world, the use of technology that is beyond us and so so backwards, is pretty cool.
But I didn't love the book. I wanted more from it and also was frustrated with the cliffhanger ending.

Unknown said...

"It made me feel a little tired reading it."

Yes! Yes, I know exactly what you mean. I think I was looking at it from my middle-grade boy perspective, but I do worry that it might be a bit complex for that demographic, and not emotionally complex enough for the older demographic. I think for those who like their adventure straight-up, this is going to really appeal. But I think any complexity is going to have to come from discussion outside the book, rather than from within.

The ending was a real kicker. I was actually not at all happy about it, especially once I found out that there is a full year between releases.

Ana S. said...

It'll be a while before I read this, but I'm very much looking forward to it. I bet I'll feel very bad for the Leviathan and all the other animals used in the war too, though.

Unknown said...

Nymeth - it's hard not to. But there's a definite feeling that it might be better than the alternative. Personally, I don't think so, but it's something to talk about for sure.

I'll be watching for your review!