Scott Westerfeld, author of the popular Uglies series for young adults, tries his hand at steampunk in Leviathan, an imaginative alternate-reality story featuring two teenagers who must cope with personal loss and isolation, and who learn the meaning of friendship in a time of war. But this book is no downer. Westerfeld takes readers along for the wild adventures of the two young protagonists. Written for a YA audience, Leviathan is a fun read for adults as well.
Alek and Deryn are 15, on the cusp of adulthood, but still young enough to hold onto the idealism, rebelliousness, and naiveté of youth. Young readers will see something of themselves in these characters, traits that transcend gender, nationality, time period, and the sci-fi setting of the book. Adult readers will appreciate the realism that Westerfeld imbues them with.
Alek is a well-meaning but lonely boy who hasn't had much experience in the world, having been protected from it all of his princely life. Deryn, who is masquerading as a boy in the British air service, also feels she has much to prove. Although she is more streetwise than Alek, she is too often reckless and overconfident. However, when she takes risks, they pay off. She has an affinity for flying Huxleys - hydrogen breathing, fabricated creatures built for air travel - and isnt afraid to rope-climb across the side of a giant air whale at 1000 feet in the air.
Once Deryn's British airship crashes in Switzerland (where Alek and his guardians are hiding out) and the two young people meet, they must learn to work together despite their differences. Because Leviathan is the first of a planned four-part series, Alek and Deryn's relationship doesn't have a chance to develop much by the end of this first volume. But Westerfeld makes it clear that learning to trust and respect each other is an important beginning for these two, if any kind of friendship (or romance?) is going to grow.
As much as I liked Alek and Deryn, I found Dr. Nora Barlow to be the most intriguing character. Her bowler hat, cool demeanor, and droll humor make her an ideal steampunk character (see "Steampunk for Beginners" by Cherie Priest), and for me, she brought to mind Miss Veronica Hobbs from George Mann's The Affinity Bridge, who possesses similar wit and intelligence. In Leviathan, Dr. Barlow's calm wisdom is a refreshing change of pace from Alek's lack of guile, and Deryn's tendency to leap directly into the path of danger. Barlow is frequently the voice of reason, keeping the adults in line, and seeing the big picture. Although the answer isn't revealed in the book, one wonders if her keen senses are even fooled by Deryn's disguise.
Last, but not least, this book's wonderful full-page, black and white illustrations by Keith Thompson (see sidebar), who also drew the caricature map on the inside front and back covers, are a fantastic and useful addition to the novel. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Younger readers will certainly find the black and white illustrations appealing, and I loved that they allowed me to visualize the many complex and wondrous machines and cross-bred creatures described in the text. I also found the jacket illustration by Sammy Yuen, Jr. to be quite captivating.
Leviathan is suitable for readers 12 and up.
Publishing Soon: Behemoth - the second volume in this four part series, publishing October 5, 2010.
This review was originally published in November 2009, and has been updated for the August 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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