★ ★ ★
An Adventure in Which an Aristocratic Young Man Discovers How to Pilot an All-Terrain Walker and that he is Now an Orphan, and a Young Woman Disguises Herself as a Young Man and Joins the Navy to Pilot Flying Octopi and Whales.
I rarely read Young Adult, so it is a mark of Westerfeld’s credit that I didn’t abandon ship immediately. I picked it up as a monthly read, mistakenly assuming the group disqualified the genre from nominations. I know what you are thinking–why didn’t I quit? Well, Leviathan has been making reading lists for some time with solid ratings from my friends. And every now and then I do read some fantastic young adult. It isn’t the book’s fault, exactly–it’s mine.
“It felt odd fencing in farmer’s clothes, without servants standing ready to bring water and towels. Mice scrambled underfoot, and the giant Stormwalker watched over them like some iron god of war. Every few minutes Count Volger called a halt and stared up at the machine, as if hoping to find in its stoic silence the patience to endure Alek’s clumsy technique.”
It begins with Prince Aleksandar Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary headed to bed, musing on the battle he was enacting with his little tin soldiers. Before long, he’s awakened by his father’s trusted adviser on what he thinks is a nighttime training mission–piloting a land-walker in the dark. Try as I might, I could not stop visualizing the Star Wars edition, circa 1983:
Prince Alek is young, and makes all sorts of silly mistakes: thinking the advisers might be out to kidnap him, not believing his parents were killed and accidentally betraying his noble upbringing. It’s hard to be in disguise as a peasant! Apparently his situation is the byproduct of an attempt to incite a war. Meanwhile, Deryn Sharp is also discovering it is hard to live in disguise–in her case, as a boy. You have to swagger and hit people a lot, but she’s learning fast as she goes through training in the British Air Service. During her test flight, her balloon/octopus accidentally gets away and results in her being picked up by a mammoth–excuse me, whale–of a flying warship. She gets a place in the crew and manages to become part of an important diplomatic mission. Of course, the two worlds will collide. Oh, did I mention they are also the Romeo and Juliet of the European world, representing opposite sides in the conflict, who in turn represent opposite applications of technology.
“According to her aerology manual, the big hydrogen breathers were modeled on the tiny South American islands where Darwin had made his famous discoveries. The Leviathan wasn’t one beastie, but a vast web of life in ever shifting balance.”
The most engaging aspect of the tale was the cultural construct of how scientific thought was applied. In the English faction, science dove right into “Darwinism,” gene-splicing and biotech. Inventions are based upon biological creations operating in mechanical ways. Thus, the flying octopus balloons and the whale-based airships powered by renewable biomass. It’s extremely interesting and creative and was, without doubt, one of the reasons I kept reading.
Plotting felt solid. Relatively predictable, of course, given our YA heroes, but with a twist or turn along the way as to the structure of the conflict. I read the hardcover, which not only has a lovely jacket but a creative European-west Asian map on the faceplate. The illustrations by Keith Thompson are shown in perfect detail. I thought they added a great deal to the story, occasionally providing some imagery to hook the story on, and was glad I was reading paper. It wouldn’t have worked as well on my e-reader.
Writing style was excellent, and again, sign of Westerfeld’s skill, as far as I’m concerned. Deryn does speak in a heavy slang at times, to the point that Alek complains she is almost incomprehensible.
Confession time: not only to I not enjoy Young Adult as a genre, I really don’t enjoy modern human history. Part of it is the arbitrariness of the detail for me: Leader X of Y ate apples and bananas in 1935 and might have set off a world war when he accidentally tipped the farmer who was lost his livelihood in milk shortage, a gold coin. I just can’t remember that kind of arbitrary minutia; I’m much better with cardiovascular output, baroreceptors and red blood cells porting around oxygen to the outer perimeters. Westerfeld’s set up has to do with Leader Somebody So-and-So not being something or another in 19-Something-Something, only it went the Other Way in real life. I didn’t care when I tried to learn it in 1985, and I really don’t care now. But kudos to you, Westerfeld for making a pivotal historical event your story lynchpin. The other reason it is was never going to work for me: fighting. Events leading up to war. Young people discovering adult politics. Mounted scouts. Flying stuff shooting at other flying stuff. Land stuff shooting at flying stuff. Skirmishes. You know–tin soldiers.
Upshot? Hugely readable, well-written and illustrated book that almost completely misses my reading interests and manages to be entertaining anyways. If any of that appeals to you, I highly recommend it.