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Book Review: Leviathan By Scott Westerfeld

October 14, 2009 Leave a comment

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.

coverleviathanSummary:
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.

Review:
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

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Book Review: Pretties By Scott Westerfeld (Series, #2)

August 19, 2009 3 comments

coverprettiesSummary:
Tally Youngblood lives in a dystopian society where everyone is given an operation at the age of 16 that makes them perfectly pretty.  What is not known by the general population is that during the operation lesions are put on the brain to make people dumbed down and easy to control.  A few people are selected to be “Specials.”  They don’t have the lesions and control the rest of the society.  Some people resist the operation and the control and live in the wilderness, calling themselves “Smokies.”

After being captured from The Smoke, Tally has been made pretty.  She has mostly forgotten her experiences and has a new boyfriend, Zane.  They belong to a New Pretty clique called The Crims.  The book follows what occurs after teens from the New Smoke bring Tally pills created by adults in the New Smoke that are supposed to cure the brain lesions.  She and Zane share them and begin plotting their resistance of the regime and escape from New Pretty Town.

Review:
I am quite torn about this book.

On the one hand, I like that Westerfeld is clearly gradually moving our traditional hero, Tally, toward turning into one of the bad guys in this society.  It’s a move not commonly seen in YA lit, and I think it’s a bold thing to do.  It could lead teens to question what makes people behave badly versus what makes people behave well.  It’s a bit reminiscent to me of the key question in Wicked: Are people born bad or do circumstances make them that way?

On the other hand, I am profoundly disturbed at how Westerfeld presents Shay, Tally’s one-time best friend and the one who came up with the plan to escape to The Smoke in the first book, Uglies.  Tally followed Shay there, won over the guy Shay had her eye on, and betrayed Shay to the Specials, causing her to be turned Pretty.  Oh, and in Pretties she completely leaves Shay out of the whole pills-curing-people-and-escaping-to-New-Smoke-thing.

Since Tally is leaving Shay out, Shay is left to her own devices.  These are delineated in the chapter titled “The Cutters.” In this chapter Tally and Zane discover that Shay has discovered a way to temporarily clear the fuzziness in her head caused by the operation.  She is ceremonially cutting herself and has some followers who are now doing the same.  They call their clique “The Cutters.”

Self-injury is a real element of multiple mental illnesses.  People suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and borderline personality disorder will display this symptom.  However, it is most well-known and highly associated with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which is already stigmatized and misunderstood by the media and general population.

Westerfeld’s presentation of self-injury in his storyline reinforces multiple stereotypes regarding it.  First is the idea that self-injurers only cut.  This is not the case.  Burning, head banging, hitting things until your knuckles bleed, picking at and peeling skin, and pulling out hair are just some of the multiple methods people used.  Cutting, burning, and head banging are the most common.  Thus, showing all of The Cutters using the exact same self-injury method to clear their heads is misleading.

Second, Shay and the other Cutters proudly display their scars and make a show of the bleeding.  Self-injurers must face the prejudice that they do this for attention, that they do it in places people will notice to garner that attention.  For the vast majority of self-injurers this is not the case.  They do it in places that are easy to hide, such as upper thighs, or purposefully wear long sleeves to hide the marks.  They are usually profoundly ashamed of what they did, or at least terrified that people will find out.  It would be much more accurate to portray Shay cutting herself in a private room and have Tally accidentally see it, than to have the large ceremony in the middle of a park that is portrayed in the book.

Third, while it is true that some self-injurers say their mind feels clearer from injuring, others say it helps them shut down emotions they don’t want to feel.  It’s perfectly plausible for Shay to be in the former group, but it seems to me that at least one of her followers would be in the latter group.

My real issue though comes from the fact that Tally seeing Shay self-injuring is the final decisive straw to her.  She emphatically announces that Shay is crazy, and Zane agrees with her.  No one dissents from this viewpoint.  Shay’s scars are the markers that she’s gone off her rocker; there’s no turning back.  To top it all off, the cutting is what makes the evil Specials decide that Shay and her group should be Specials themselves, thus associating self-injury not only with “being crazy” but also with being evil.   Additionally, the ceremony in the middle of the woods is clearly connotated as being primitive.

Can you imagine what reading this portrayal would do to a teen struggling with self-injury?  She is portrayed as purely crazy, evil, and primitive.  Shay is a lost cause in the book, and clearly the teen must be too.  So little sympathy is given to Shay.  Not even a spark of goodness is visible in her.

I’m not the type to say that if you display thus-and-such group as evil you’re saying they’re all evil.  I think it’s just as discriminatory to always portray a certain group as good.  However, the portrayal of Shay turns so one-dimensional with the on-set of her self-injury.  There is zero depth to her character, zero exploration of her as a conflicted person.  She could have had rich character development.  Indeed, the entire group of “Cutters” could have been a wonderful opportunity for Westerfeld to explore more depth in his story-telling.

Yet he went the easy, sensationalist route and portrayed an evil, crazy, primitive female slashing her arms while reciting a spell, letting the blood drip down in the rain.

An incredible image to visualize? Yes.  A deep, accurate one?  No.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

Previous Books in Series:
Uglies

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