by Scott Westerfeld
448 pages, Viking/Penguin/Simon Pulse
Review by S. F. Winser
One of the big YA series of the Noughties (May I digress and note that I hate the term 'Noughties' and feel the the coming of 2010 has been a boon for the English language? No? Okay, then I won't) was Westerfeld's 'Uglies' series. A fast-paced sci-fi book about a totalitarian regime that controlled people with plastic surgery and I never actually finished it. I thought book #1 was pretty good, book #2 was good and I got partway into book #3 before realising I just couldn't take anymore.
This was very much a taste thing. The Uglies series relied very heavily on showing the protagonist a situation/society and/or group she hated, then forcing her to become that. And then showing her a new situation. Which she also hated. And, whoops, now she's part of that, too. Now here's another brainwashed group to hate. And so on. It was... emotionally draining. I gave up, not for issues of Westerfeld's style but out of personal fatigue. I couldn't follow the put-upon protag down any more bloody rabbit-holes. The poor girl had suffered enough.
However, I always felt guilty about giving up on 'Uglies'.
So when Scott Westerfeld's new YA Steampunk book came about, I – renowned lover of Steampunk goodness - grabbed it with a mix of anticipation, fear, and hope at a small chance of personal redemption.
Oh boy, was it fun.
Westerfeld's style in 'Leviathan' is sharp and controlled. I barely felt like I was reading Young Adult. Sure the protagonists are mainly young. Sure, one or two concepts are explained in text and in an afterword. But... Well... There's also an amazing depth of plotting and socio-political subtext that would be fine in any novel aimed at adults. 'Leviathan' is set in a alt-history version of World War I. The politics around the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand – a notoriously difficult subject and the subject of many a PhD thesis – are stripped down and used as YA plot-points with a grace and ease that are simply staggering. There are depths here enough for any adult reader. And not just politically. In science, as well. Because, deep down, all Steampunk is a comment on science and its place in the world. Which, in 'Leviathan', is the use of genetically-modified animals (including the eponymous 'Leviathan' a giant, part-whale airship) by some 'Darwinist' political powers and the use of mecha-style 'Clanker' war-machines by others. It's biology versus physics as the playing-ground, but the morality of using advanced technology in war is the idea somewhat explored. We also see the joys and dangers of science. And questioning human impact on animals through genetic engineering for our own purposes.
Also, you know, giant walking machines! With guns! Fighting giant, genetically-modified whales! Giant machines with machine guns fighting each other! In WW I!
'Leviathan' is, however, only the first book of what looks to be a trilogy. Westerfeld may end up psychologically damaging his rather likable protagonists to the point where I find myself giving up again. I hope not. I like the plucky little suckers. The naïve but bright and brave Alek, (fictional) son of Archduke Ferdinand and the equally smart and brave and downright daring Deryn. Oh, and Deryn's a girl pretending to be a boy. And she's in the equivalent of the Air Force.
Yeah. I think she's gonna hit some trouble in the future.
They're both too easy to like and root for. Poor Alek starts the novel under a cloud, but for Derryn so far there's only hints of the more intangible dangers she's sure to encounter. Though there's physical danger aplenty for both of them. Jumping off airships, piloting giant war machines secretly towards Switzerland, attacks from enemies secret and overt – it's all there. And it's all a great ride. Westerfeld handles potentially murky action scenes with easy clarity and a fair bit of heart-pounding fear.
The book is also heavily illustrated. And rather beautifully. The illustrator was apparently trying for something like Victorian Manga in the fifty-odd illustrations. A very Steampunky ambition. In some cases it's a bit over-sketchy. In others, the style works wonderfully. Even the end-papers' stylised map of Europe is an awesome work of art that references old-style allegorical maps of the period (Except the US edition – the end papers appear in the UK and Australia only). There is an almost cult-like love for the map for this series in various online communities. And the artist has good reasons for almost every detail of it.
Now comes the curse of any good 'book #1' in the series. I honestly can't yet say if this is a good series. I don't know. I've only read a third of it. Sure, that was good, but what happens when the aliens turn up in book #2 and kill everyone? Or it turns out that it was all just a dream? Or Westerfeld spends all of book #3 in a long-winded rant about local government regulations on rubbish collection? I don't know: Westerfeld hasn't even written all of book #2 yet and it's not due out until October. How does a reviewer honestly rate a movie if he only watches the first 30 minutes?
At the moment the best I can do is 'I think this series is very promising'.
...Is it October yet?