I’ve been wanting to read this book from almost the first moment I heard about it. Actually, from the first moment I heard the title. Hearing what it was actually about sealed the deal quickly, though. The book is a re-imagining of World War I—or more specifically, it’s a steampunk-ified alternate history. The book—in both its presentation and its descriptions—is a beautiful visual thing, and the story does not disappoint.
In our own history, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in June of 1914 lead to the eventual world-wide conflict of The Great War, Allies vs. the Central powers. Leviathan focuses on an imaginary son of the Archduke, and the lines are drawn between Darwinists—those who follow the science studies of a way-advanced, gene-crossing version Charles Darwin—and Clankers—those who depend on machinery, and distrust the Darwinists “ungodlike” fabricated creatures.
With Ferdinand dead, Alek is suddenly a possible threat to the Austrian throne—despite his common mother—also killed in Westerfeld’s story. His father had prepared for this possibility, however, and enrolled the help of those most loyal and useful to him—including the master of mechanics Otto Klauss, and Alek’s own fencing coach, Count Volger—to steal Alek away from his home in the middle of the night, for his own safety.
Meanwhile Deryn Sharp is trying to get into the British Air Service—never mind the fact that she’s a girl, and that’s against the rules. She has all the facts and figuring of aeronautics down flat—it’s talking and acting like a boy that she has to work at.
A series of mishaps and meanderings winds up with the two—one a Clanker aristocrat and one a common Darwinist soldier—into an unlikely friendship and alliance, aboard the Leviathan, an enormous British airship—and its own ecosystem of fabricated beasties, including the ship itself, which is made from a heavily-modified whale.
The book weaves and melds history and fantasy in beautiful, unexpected ways, with some explanations by Westerfeld in the back as to what is and isn’t historically true. Meanwhile, it’s a high-stakes, coming-of-age tale that points out how, even on the opposite sides of war—even having different ideals and beliefs—all of us have more in common than we do differences. Meanwhile, the characters are clever and interesting, the creatures and machines described (and beautifully illustrated by Keith Thompson) are all kinds of fantastical—I can already imagine this as a blockbuster movie… easily. And the book ends with a fantastic promise for the sequel, Behemoth, due out in October of this year. I’m very excited for it.
A+ for my first Westerfeld novel. I loved every rich, rich moment of it.