Book Review: Leviathan By Scott Westerfeld
Thanks to my friend Margaret for lending me her ARC of Leviathan! I’ve enjoyed Scott Westerfeld’s other YA books, and my recent surge in curiosity about steampunk (due to love of the fashion) made me extra-curious about this new YA steampunk book.
World War I takes on a whole new look when the Allied powers function utilizing machine-like, genetically engineered animals, and the Axis powers use tanks that walk using steam power. In this alternate history reside Deryn and Alek. Deryn is a teenaged Scottish girl who pretends to be a boy so she can join the air service working aboard the Leviathan–an ecosystem that resembles a zeppelin. Alek as the son of the assassinated Austrian archduke must go into hiding in Switzerland, escaping with a few loyal servants and a walker–one of the walking tanks. Their worlds end up colliding, as worlds tend to do in a world war.
This book should come with a warning. “By YA we mean for middle schoolers younger than the characters, not late teens like Westerfeld’s other books.” Although this is technically YA, it reads like a children’s book. Some would say the lovely illustrations throughout made it feel that way, but I don’t think that’s the case. Some adult books are full of wonderful illustrations, yet we still know they are meant for adults. I really think it’s the storyline and the writing that came off so young this time. Maybe Westerfeld wanted to write younger, but his publisher should have notified his fans that this is a book meant for younger people.
Westerfeld does an excellent job of explaining the Darwinist world in a subtle way to the reader. I have difficulty even explaining the flying ecosystems to people, yet I understood them perfectly in the book. Similarly, I had no issue picturing the walkers, even though I couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to build such a thing. I also liked Deryn. She is a well-rounded character–with flaws, but still someone a young audience can look up to. Similarly, the most intelligent person on the airship is a woman, which is a feature I highly appreciated.
On the other hand, I found Alek to be a completely confusing and unsympathetic character. At first I thought he was about nine years old, then overnight he seems to be fifteen. Yes, I know his parents died, but I don’t think a fifteen year old would be playing with toy soldiers the night prior, regardless. Similarly, Alek repeatedly makes stupid decisions. I know characters sometimes make them, but he makes them so often that I just want to slap him upside the head. There is very little that is redeemable about Alek. By the time he makes a wise decision, I was so sick of him that it failed to raise my opinion of him at all.
Similarly, I’m bothered that all of the servants loyal to Alek are men. Why couldn’t a single woman be loyal to him? Deryn’s world consists of both powerful men and women, yet Alek’s is entirely male except for his low-born mother. I know this is early 20th century, but if you’re going alternate history, why not empower a few more women along the way?
Even though there is steam power and Victorian clothing in an alternate history, Leviathan didn’t feel very steampunky to me because, well, the setting is Victorian! Maybe I’m too into steampunk fashion, but I would have been far more impressed if all these things were true in an alternate history of the Vietnam War, for instance, or even World War II. I think World War I is just far too close to the actual Victorian age to truly feel like an alternate, steampunk world. I get enjoying books written in the Victorian era from a steampunk viewpoint, but current authors could be far more creative when utilizing this genre.
Finally, I have to say, I hate the ending! I know Westerfeld is a huge fan of writing trilogies, but this ending is far too abrupt. I was left going “what the hell?” instead of feeling pleasantly teased about the second book in the series.
Leviathan isn’t a bad book. It isn’t painful to read, and the storyline is enjoyable. It’s kind of like a mash-up of Jurassic Park, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and your typical 21st century YA novel. Only minus all the blood, guts, and gore. Middle schoolers with a taste for the whacky will enjoy it. Older teens and adults should choose more sophisticated steampunk–perhaps even the classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Borrowed ARC from a friend