Author: Scott Westerfeld
Genre: steampunk, young adult
Length: 460 pages
Publisher: Simon Pulse (October 2009)
MY RATING: 4.5 stars
What if Charles Darwin discovered genetic engineering in the nineteenth century instead of the theory of evolution–and turned it to a variety of domestic and military uses? What if Germany and Austria developed bulky war machines, land navies? In Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld posits what the world would look like in 1914, at the start of the First World War, if several things had turned out differently. The war pits the “Clankers” and their war machines against the “Darwinists” and their “beasties.”
His is a steampunk version of the war, but it is also a love story. In this alternative history, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, does die with his beloved wife Sophia on that fateful day in 1914, but they leave behind a single child named Aleksander (rather than the three children that they did historically). Franz Ferdinand defied his uncle the Emperor by marrying a woman who was not of royal blood. With his parents assassinated, Prince Alek is targeted next. The men in his father’s inner circle whisk him away in the middle of the night, and they go on the run in a two-legged steam-driven machine, making for Switzerland.
The other protagonist is Deryn Sharp, a girl from Glasgow who loves flying more than anything in the world. Her cousin helps her enlist in the Royal Air Service and coaches her on how to conceal her female identity. She takes on the identity of Dylan Sharp and uses the aeronautical skills that her father, an avid balloonist, taught her prior to his death. Through a freak accident, she finds herself on the HMS Leviathan, a ship that is its own ecosystem, composed of a variety of “fabricated” animals. Bats and falcons play the role that bombers and fighters do in our world; bio-luminescent worms and bacteria provide the lighting; but above all, an air-whale forms the basis of the ship, and lends it its name. Deryn/Dylan fits in well on the Leviathan and then fate sends her with the rest of the crew on a scientific/diplomatic mission to Constantinople, capital of the Clanker-aligned Ottoman Empire, led by the enigmatic Dr. Nora Barlow.
I won’t give away any more of the general plot. Much of Leviathan is the parallel story of Alek and Deryn, as they both struggle to maintain false identities to survive in the worlds that they find themselves in. Alek must go against fifteen years of training as an aristocrat to pass himself off as a peasant. Deryn does a somewhat better job aboard the air-whale, finding herself with little to remind her of her past life; Alek has his father’s advisers and machinists who watch his every move.
I enjoy reading stories, fictional or historical, about women passing themselves off for men in order to fight. Deryn is a good fit for this, as Alek is at the aristocrat suddenly finding himself living on his own wits. They both come close to having their secrets discovered, even more so when their parallel stories connect, as the novel comes to its climax.
I recommend Leviathan to fans of steampunk, alternative history, and young adult adventure. The technology of both the Clankers and Darwinists is fascinating. The smallest of details, added together, suggests how the world might be different. The focus, however, is on these two young people living in the worlds in which they’d been born, and as young people do take their destinies into their own hands, as far as they are able.