book review: leviathan

Paul Westerfeld’s young adult book Leviathan is a pretty excellent story. In all the reviews I’ve seen online they start with the history and the coolness there but I’m going to come at it a bit differently. See the story is about two main characters. One is a young prince who has to flee his palace in the middle of the night after his parents are assassinated, which will plunge the world into war. His two trusted advisors are supposed to take him high into the mountains to keep him safe until the war is over. The other main character is a girl who’s posing as a boy to get onto the kind of ship she was born to be on. After a slight misadventure she gets onto a ship but her job turns into minding the scientist they’re transporting. About halfway through the book the two stories meet up.

Taken like this, it’s a pretty decent adventure story. The girl, Deryn, is a plucky nobody who swears a lot. The prince, Alek, is learning how to get by in a world that’s changed drastically. They’re both depicted well, and the prickly counts and scientists and captains and all the supporting characters are pretty good. All of this makes for a fine, if unmemorable, book.

Now the stuff that sticks in your head is the setting. See this is all taking place in an alternate 1918. An alternate 1918 in which the Germans Austrians Prussians, all of them, have diesel-powered walking tanks. They’re known as the Clankers. Back in Britain, Charles Darwin also discovered DNA and how to manipulate it so they use bioengineered animals for everything, including their airships. The titular Leviathan is a hydrogen filled whale that people can walk around inside with gondolas strapped to its belly. Alek is the son of Archduke Ferdinand, and Deryn’s dream has always been to fly.

There are walker chases and fights. Soldiers get killed. The kids make kiddish mistakes that they beat themselves up for. There are messenger lizards which repeat what they’ve been told, and one of Leviathan’s big weapons is a flock of flechette-bats that get fed metal and then shit it out on zeppelins and such. It’s all pretty cool, if scientifically implausible.

After finishing it I was talking to a kid who wanted something good for grade 8. I hunted down the library copy I had and told him he had to read this. It’s fun how much a big cool image like “So the ship is a flying whale…” helps to sell a book. And the book is illustrated too. It feels very of its time. Plus flying jellyfish and mechanical spider-walkers. Good stuff. The only thing I disliked is how it has “first book in a series” disease, so nothing really gets resolved. It bothered me less than sometimes, because the story was good and I enjoyed the world and characters.

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