Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Leviathan

Read February 2016
Recommended for fans of young adult, biotech, Austria
 ★    ★    ★

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:

ewok walker

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.

octopus flying

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.

 

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About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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6 Responses to Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

  1. I really loved this series, and I think the illustrations played a huge role in that. I ended up googling the artist and going through and looking at a bunch of the artwork he had online.

  2. I love the way you express your preferences.

    “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”

    Hahaha! And a lot I agree with.

  3. neotiamat says:

    “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.” <– I find this statement hilarious because most historians don't go in for arbitrary minutia either. We just spend seven-ish years learning how to look stuff up and string it together coherently.

    Anyway, I have enormous fondness for Westerfeld, and I enjoyed this full series quite a bit. To my eye, YA as a genre tends towards 'simpler' narratives than more adult fiction, but this isn't *necessarily* a bad thing. In the right hands, YA fiction becomes almost archetypal, hearkening back to classic stories we've been telling and re-telling for years. Star Wars itself was almost wholly an echo of old pulp magazine stories (Buck Rogers and his less-famous ilk). It becomes comfortable reading, the kind of story where you're pretty sure of the destination but you're happy to go along for the ride anyway. Westerfeld's writing and characterization skills are good enough to pull it off (Tamora Pierce is another YA author who often gets praise for this kind of thing).

    Mind you, in less skilled hands, YA rapidly becomes an angst-ridden mess of cliches, but such is life.

    You might look up Westerfeld's Succession duology. It's a kind of hard-sci space opera (well, harder sci-fi than David Weber, say) rather than steampunk, and it's a bit more adult in tone, while still maintaining his impeccable setting design and quality writing. I suspect you'd find it more to your tastes, though it does have a fair amount of fighting in it.

    • thebookgator says:

      Irony, right? I get systems; it’s the arbitrary human behavior that I don’t understand. I have such a terrible head for memorizing dates, names and the like–it just doesn’t fit into a pattern–I’d be an awful history teacher.
      I understand what you are saying about Westerfeld. I knew while reading that besides just being YA, he wasn’t catering to what I enjoy in the field, and was in fact hitting areas I didn’t particularly care for. But I can see why he deserves acclaim, because he is telling it well, and without too much reliance on convention.

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