Posted by: yannaungoak | June 11, 2011

(Book Review) Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

So, I thought I should start blogging again. Heheh… it’s been a while.

And today, we have a book review. I stumbled upon this book from this webcomic called Wasted Talent that I often read. So, it’s a steampunk novel set in World War I that has the Germans in giant battle mecha-robots fighting the British (plus French, Russians and others) who… have giant genetically engineered animals like whale/airships which have crews of hundreds of “airmen” living in them. It was too cool sounding not to check out so I googled it and guess what, the book has an accompanying trailer! I think that’s like the new thing now, for novels to have accompanying trailers. What makes it particularly cool for this book though is that it also has really awesome illustrations in it, like this one, and this, and this. In the trailer (below) you can see some snapshots of the cool illustrations that feature in the book too. Novels with pictures are so cool, all of them should be like that.

So, the plot is set at the dawn of the First World War. One of the two main protagonists is the only son of Franz Ferdinand, the archduke of Austria, who gets assassinated and sends all of Europe into a frenzy. The poor kid was only 15 or something and gets dragged out of bed in the middle of the night by his guardian/godfather (who’s an awesome character) to go into hiding. The other main character is a Scottish girl who has a passion for flying thanks to her late father and dreams of joining the “royal air navy”. She pretends to be a boy and ends up joining the air navy to become a midshipman on one of the whale/airships. The boy’s name is Alek and the the girl is Deryn, but changed her name of Dylan to pass off as a boy.


I guess it’s supposed to a “Young Adult” book, like Harry Potter or The Golden Compass or something like that, which features adolescent protagonists in a coming of age tale. But the whole time I didn’t feel annoyed by the main characters at all. I think it’s because the plot was so fast paced and just perfectly synchronized so that you never have a boring moment, and yet you don’t feel like the author is adding in action and excitement for it’s own sake. And I think the main characters were sympathizable too. All too often, if you have these young protagonists in coming of age tales you get the whole Harry Potter’esque “he’s super awesome but somehow he acts like he’s the emo loser kid” thing going on, it all seems unrealistic. The two kids in this book do seem more larger than life than typical real life fifteen year olds, but they mess up, they don’t have any secret super powers, and they really seem like naive teenagers thrown into a huge mess of a situation, particularly Alek.

Another commendable thing about the book is that although the setting is a ludicrously fantastical world, the author makes it into something rather believable. I love it when fantasy authors get their worldbuilding right, where it’s fantastical but within the framework of that world, everything has it’s own explanation. For example, the giant airship/whales are an ecosystem all on their own. They float because they are filled with hydrogen (as a result all the crew are only armed with airguns), which is produced by bacteria living in the whale’s gut. The bacteria feeds on honey that is produced by a shipboard colony of bees. Which means the airship/whale refuels by flying over fields of flowers and letting the bees feed on nectar, or by directly digesting massive amounts of starch.

The book also walks a fine line between real history and made up history. For example, the real historical Franz Ferdinand had more than one child, but the book stayed true to his real life romance with his non-aristocratic wife and the resulting dynastic difficulties. And as you may know, the history of the beginnings of World War I is labyrinthine and complex as hell (Germans invading France by way of Belgium to take them out before the Russians in a preemptive strike because they expect the Russians will invade in retaliation for Austria declaring war on Serbia, etc etc). The novel doesn’t skimp out on the gritty political details. Young Alek gets taught all this gritty geopolitics during a fencing lesson.

So, yeah, go grab the book! It’s the first part of a trilogy. I’m reading the second book, Behemoth, right now, and it’s set in a weirdly wonderful steampunk version of Istanbul. The third part of the trilogy comes out sometime this year I think, and there’s talk of this book series being made into a movie, which would be awesome, just for the eye-candy alone!



  1. […] Click for review of steampunk-styley 'Leviathan'. […]

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