A few years ago, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Scott Westerfield’s Uglies; so much so, that I went on to read both Pretties and Specials (though I never did make it to Extras). Having decided that December will be YA month for me, I finally got around to looking at Leviathan, Westerfeld’s steampunk fantasy take on WWI.
Leviathan starts out when Deryn Sharp, a fifteen year old girl, disguises herself as a boy to join the military. Why? Well, in Deryn’s world, the military uses “Darwinist” technology to build organic airships that fuel themselves by digesting bugs and plants to make hydrogen. Deryn wants to fly.
Meanwhile, Alek, the fictional son of the real-life Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and sole heir to the throne of Austria, is forced to flee when his parents are assassinated. Yes, the book plays fast and loose with facts, but hey, if we can’t learn from history that wars suck, at least we can use them as fodder for good fiction.
Of course, eventually, Deryn and Alek meet up, and a rote progression toward friendship occurs: they are annoyed with each other, find out they actually have quite a bit in common, keep secrets for each other, and become firm allies. This is more complicated for Deryn than for Alek, when she predictably begins to respond to Alek’s company as a member of the opposite sex; he, meanwhile, has no idea she is anything other than a tall skinny boy.
This kind of pat plot development, while it doesn’t detract too strongly from Westerfeld’s many brilliant premises, doesn’t elevate the book too far above standard YA fare, either. I don’t know whether they evince any more complicated development in the other two books in this three-book series, but in this first installment, Deryn and Alek possess few traits to differentiate them from the stock Spunky Tomboy, or the Prince Needing Humbling. While the interweaving of fact and fiction was intellectually amusing to an adult mind, the two main characters were not emotionally affecting enough to make me forget I was reading YA. This is too bad, because not only does Westerfeld’s steampunk world feel marvelously fresh, it has potential to take on shades of complexity as it becomes more developed in future novels– though it doesn’t quite get there in this book. Deryn’s Royal Air Service relies on, as mentioned above, “Darwinist” technology to create hybrid animals that perform various functions. These “beasties,” as Deryn calls them, seem to possess significantly more intelligence than, say, a sponge, but somewhat less sentience than a dog or a horse. The titular Leviathan is an airship made out of a genetically modified whale. The descriptions of it as being oddly beautiful, with veins and arteries snaking like vines on its surface, and bugs crawling in its stomach while they are digested into fuel for the ship, stirred up in me a feeling of awe and excitement similar to that which I experienced reading Dune for the first time, and learning about the origins of spice. Meanwhile, Alek, as a citizen of Austria-Hungary, is a “Clanker,” or person who relies solely on non-organic technology, who fears and disdains Darwinism.
As in his Uglies trilogy, Westerfeld demonstrates a deft hand with action sequences. I usually find myself skimming action scenes in books to get back to the plot, but he not only integrates actions scenes into plot quite well, he somehow (and I’m not quite sure how he does it) makes them actually exciting. When I read about Deryn’s first ride in a Huxley (a jellyfish hot air balloon), I found that I was relishing, vicariously, the feeling of flight, at the same time that I was taking in details about what, exactly, the Darwinist creatures are, and learning about Deryn’s world.
I haven’t yet decided whether I want to read the other two books in the series, which is problematic in a trilogy: if your reader doesn’t already know she wants to read the rest of it, she will likely not get around to it until she’s forgotten enough of the book to lose interest. But, it’s early in YA December, and if I find that after a few more books I’m foundering for more material, I might reach back for seconds of Westerfield’s imaginative offerings.