Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld and illustrated by Keith Thompson is the first in a trilogy that also includes the companion book, The Manual of Aeronautics, which is loaded with detailed descriptions and elaborate illustrations of the Darwinist beasties and Clanker walkers, weapons and uniforms that make up the world that Westerfeld has created and Thompson has masterfully illustrated. But, I am getting ahead of myself. Westerfeld, who is also known for his Uglies quartet of books set in a future where government regulates and controls and segregates society by sanctioning and subsidizing an operation for all citizens when they reach the age of sixteen that turns them into Pretties - perfectly, beautiful, bubbly people. Of course, there are also people who choose to live outside of this enforced way of life, the main character, Tally, torn between the two. I read these books a very long time ago and remembering being very impressed with the concept (an interesting questions about the way our current society values appearances) but not so much with the writing. I was very surprised to learn that Westerfeld's next work was a very different one of alternative historical fiction set in Europe. I bought this book when it came out in 2009 thinking I might be able to tempt my non-fiction, history loving son with it. Instead, I hooked my history teacher husband who read the trilogy again as I was listening to the wonderful audio of Leviathan narrated by the brilliant actor Alan Cumming for this review. Although, I did pique the interest of my eight-year-old who read a few pages and might be ready to tackle the trilogy in a year or two. While the characters in this book are teenagers and it is considered a YA book, I have classified it as a middle grade novel and think it would be acceptable for an eleven or twelve year old reader who expresses an interest. War and battle take up much of the story, but it is very much in the vein of fantasy, although Westerfeld does treat death seriously and respectfully and not graphically or gratuitously. The intensity of the action and the battles are on par with the fantastic Tunnels series by Roderick Gordon.
With Leviathan, Westerfeld creates his world around the events of the summer of 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated by young Serbian revolutionaries, an even that marked the start of what was to become WWI. Historical figures such as Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin, Pancho Villa, Nikola Tesla and William Randolph Hearst appear in the trilogy, but not exactly as themselves. The world that Westerfeld has created is divided between Darwinists and Clankers. Darwinists countries use bio-engineered or "fabricated" creatures instead of machines. At one point in Leviathan a character explains how the "beasties" created by Darwin and the generations of scientists who have acted on and improved his biological engineering have allowed London to be free of the pollution that the mechanics of the Industrial Revolution once spewed. Within countries that are Darwinists (Britain, France, Russia, Japan and the USA) there are people who disagree with Darwinist principals and developments and they are referred to as "Monkey Luddites." The Clankers, namely Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, although they do make allies over the course of the trilogy, use high-tech machines instead of bio-engineered creatures that the Darwinists rely on. They believe that the Darwinist creations are a violation against God, making them predisposed to opposed to Darwinist countries. Their Clanker creations are closer to the reality that we know - airplanes, zeppelins, but unique and creepy in their own ways. They have a wide range of "Walkers," machines that resemble those seen in the Star Wars movies, and look and move like insects.
Leviathan begins with on the cusp of WWI with Deryn, a Scottish girl, almost fifteen, who's older brother Jaspert helps her to pass as a boy in an effort to join the British Air Service. The hopeful recruits find themselves presented with the test of piloting a Huxley, a fabricated beastie along the lines of a Portuguese Man o' War that has a gas filled bladder that allows them to float. The Huxleys (named after Darwin's real life biologist friend Thomas Henry Huxley) are capable of ascent only and are thus always tethered and used mostly for aerial observance. Deryn finds herself looking into the eye of a potential storm, not wanting to wimp out but not wanting to endanger those on the ground. She ends up heroically navigating the storm and danger on the ground but also having to cut herself free. She spends hours aloft and is rescued just as she is about to drift out into the English Channel. The Leviathan rescues her. Basically, the Leviathan is a zeppelin that is also a living, breathing whale and quite possibly the most complex and fascinating creation in the trilogy. The crew works in and on the the whale, tending to the various fabricated beasts that are part of its makeup, living in the gondolas that hang below it like that on a blimp. There is a rookery on board that houses strafing hawks, fabricated birds equipped with nets made from acidic spider silk that they throw over attacking Clanker airplanes. There are Fléchette Bats that eat metal spikes and "release" them over the enemy. There are Huxleys housed within the Leviathan as well as swarms of bees that "gathered nectar and distilled it into honey, and then the bacteria in the airbeast's gut gobbled that up and farted hydrogen." There are hydrogen sniffers, dog-like creatures with six legs, one head, two mouths and two noses. They crawl all over the Leviathan searching for hydrogen leaks. There are message lizards, reptile recorders that deliver information all over the ship. Then, there is Dr Nora Dawrin Barlow, a female boffin (scientist) wearing the black bowler hat of her profession. She boards in London with special cargo that must get to Istanbul. Deryn, known as Dylan to her crew, proves herself and is allowed stay on the Leviathan, her secret almost uncovered by the sharp-eyed grandaughter of Charles Darwin.
Chapters in Leviathan shift between Deryn's story and that of fifteen year old Alek, also known as Aleksander, Prince of Hohenberg, son of Franz Ferdinand. Because his parents' marriage was morganatic, Alek is not in line to inherit the throne, but his father has written to the Pope in the hopes of changing this. Knowing that his life is in constant danger, his son's possibly even more so, Franz Ferdinand has prepared for all eventualities. Alec's story beings in the middle of the night, Count Volger and Otto Klopp, his tutors in fencing and machines of war, among other things, wake him saying they are going to conduct a training exercise while his parents are traveling. They head out into the night in a walker, two other men helping to operate it, and make their way toward the Swiss border. Alek soon learns that his parents have been assassinated and he is being taken to a secret hiding place until the war is over or the death of the elderly Franz Joseph, the emperor. The group have a difficult trek ahead of them and are hunted every step of the way. Alek undergoes a moving transformation from bratty royal to grateful escapee as he realizes all that the men protecting him have given up for him. He also gets a rude awakening when he spends time among the common people of Austria who seem to have not love for his dead parents or the emperor. The crew face a fierce battle, walkers ten times the size of their pursuing them, and Alek finds himself in hand to hand combat. Although he tries his best to avoid it, he unintentionally kills a soldier attacking him. This moment stood out to me as very significant. While works of fantasy often have characters killed off in the many battles that take place within the plots, it is rare to have a character pause and feel remorse and grief over the brutalities of war. I greatly appreciated Westerfeld including this in his book, both for the character development it added to Alek and for the import of the moment. For more plot details but possible spoilers, keep reading...
About midway through the novel the paths of Deryn and Alek cross. The Leviathan is attacked as it crosses over the Alps on the way to Istanbul and crash lands on a glacier. Alek, the Count and Otto Klopp manage to cross the heavily guarded Swiss border in the middle of the night and make their way to the mountain fortress that Alek's father and the Count have spent years stocking with a decade's worth of supplies in the event that Alek ever needed to hide. They see the crash of the Leviathan, not more than a mile or so away, but the Count warns Alek against making contact. While the rest of the men sleep off first warm meal they have had in weeks, Alek stands guard, making the decision to take first-aid kits down to the crash site, where he revives Deryn and saves her from freezing to death. One these two have meet, their destinies are entwined and the rest of the novel details the negotiations between the crew of the Leviathan and Alek's people as they try to refuel and revive the Leviathan and ultimately ward off attacks from the Germans in a very exciting and action filled ending to this first book in the trilogy.
And, if you really like this kind of thing, the Manual of Aeronautics is a MUST!
Finally, if you liked the Leviathan Trilogy and want to read more books like this, check out the fantastic Philip Reeve:
If you liked Leviathan, don't miss Phillip Reeve's books. In 2001, Reeve began his Predator Cities quartet where he introduced the concept of Municipal Darwinism where cities on wheels (treads, actually) devoured smaller cities in an effort to acquire precious materials and technology that have been lost to the ages. Set in a distant, bleak future, he calls the Traction Era, Reeve has a great sense of humor and weaves cultural references from our time into this new world where things turn up in a very different way. These books take place over twenty years while the Fever Crumb books are set many generations before and are a prequel to this series. However, they can be read and enjoyed in any order. These two series are considered YA as the characters are in their teens. Reeve has also written a trilogy of steampunk books for middle grade readers that are set in an oddly old-fashioned outer space, Larklight, Mothstorm and Starcross, which I hope to review here soon.