Monday, November 16, 2009


Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, is a YA book set in an alternate world at the onset of WWI, a world in which the British allies use bio-engineering for their war machines and the German allies use mechanical engineering (some reviewers, like Amanda, call it steampunk, I think largely because of its neo-Victorian illustrations, and Westerfeld discusses the applicability of the steampunk label in his "Big Idea" piece at Whatever).

It's quite a good story and I am full of regret and irritation that I bought it this fall. Why Scott Westerfeld thought he could write part of a story and publish it as a finished book is explained, I guess, by the current plethora of series novels, especially in the YA section. But I'm feeling very cross about it. Westerfeld sets up a fascinating world in which a hero, Alek, and a heroine, Deryn, (alternating narratives at first) meet and learn to cooperate. While the heroine's story comes to a sort of conclusion (she's gotten what she thought she always wanted by pretending to be a boy called Dylan), the hero's is just getting started at the end of this novel. What really gets to me is that some mysterious eggs are introduced on p. 153, and on p. 434 the author cuts us off by reminding us that we still don't know what's inside the dern things. Maybe I felt extra-grouchy because I read the book while I had the flu. But still.

The illustrations, some of which you can see on Westerfeld's Leviathan page, help to tell the story; every time my daughter shows someone the book she opens it to p. 104 and says "see? here's the spider-dog." I also like the illustration of the heroine's, Deryn's, early flight with a creature based on a medusa jellyfish on p. 35. The illustrations really give readers the contrast between the soft, billowy sides of the biological tools (made by "Darwinists") and the sharp, armored edges of the mechanical ones (made by "Clankers").

The mechanical or "clanker" tools we see the most of in this book are the "walkers," such as Alek's "Stormwalker," and the two-legged variety do bear a passing resemblance to the Star Wars image. But the illustration of the "giant metal spider" variety on p. 165 shows more of the range of possibility for such machines.

The most interesting part of the tale is discovering the differences between the way the "Darwinists" and the "Clankers" think, and how they learn to cooperate. In one exchange, Alek is repulsed by the "glowworms" the Darwinists use to light the inside of their ship, Leviathan, and asks
"'Haven't you Darwinists discovered fire yet?'
'Get stuffed," Dylan said. We use oil lamps, but until the ship's all patched, it's too barking dangerous. What do they use on zeppelins, candles?'
'Don't be absurd. I imagine they have electric lights.'
Dylan snorted. 'Waste of energy. Bioluminescence worms make light from any kind of food. They can even eat soil, like an earthworm.'
Alek eyed the cluster of worms uneasily. 'And you whistle at them?'
'Aye.' Dylan brandished the pipe. 'I can command most of the ship's beasties with this.'
The Leviathan is an ecosystem, as the story itself illustrates when the ship crashes on a glacier and is in need of food, which only Alek can provide, to repair itself.

In fact, however, the Clankers and Darwinists end up working together when neither of their vehicles will work. They put the Stormwalker's engines in the Leviathan, giving it powers neither Clanker nor Darwinists vehicles have had before. And they share knowledge; another of my favorite parts is when Deryn explains the way the Leviathan uses bats in aerial warfare:
"'Did I hear Dr. Barlow say something about bats?'
'Aye, the flechette bats. You should see those wee beasties at work.'
'Flechette? Like 'dart' in French?'
'That sounds right,' Dylan said. 'The bats gobble up these metal spkes, then release them over the enemy.'
'They eat spikes,' Alek said slowly. 'And then...release them?'
Dyland stifled a laugh. 'Aye, in the usual way.'

At the end of the book, the Darwinists and Clankers are headed off together to Constantinople (leaving me with the "Istanbul not Constantinople" earworm), Deryn with her secret still intact and Alek with his destiny still unfulfilled. And the eggs as much a mystery as ever.

Westerfeld plans three books in this series, with the last one planned for publication in the fall of 2011. My advice would be to wait and get all three together. In the meantime, if you haven't read his earlier books (So Yesterday and the Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras series are my favorites), this would be a good time to do that. If he weren't such a good writer, I wouldn't be so frustrated by the lack of resolution to the story he begins with Leviathan.


Anonymous said...

I have yet to read a Scott Westerfeld. Something keeps holding me back from taking that step.

Alison said...

I hope you get your resolution in the planned sequels. I am still deeply bitter about Steven Boyett's Architects of Sleep, which suffers from exactly that problem, and for which the planned followup never materialized.

Jeanne said...

J. Kaye, I think you'd really like Uglies. His novels are so compelling it's hard to put one down.
Alison, Philip Pullman had a planned series that never materialized, and Ron and I are bitter about that, too.

Amanda said...

First, I actually only call it steampunk because that's what Westerfeld calls it all the time on his blog. I would have personally labeled it alternate history, like the Jasper Fforde books.

Second, I actually liked the breakoff point in this book. It wasn't too cliffhanging for me. It worked as a standalone book and as the first in a trilogy for me, much more than some others have. I felt completely satisfied by the end, and still plan to buy Behemoth when it comes out next October.

Jodie said...

Agh cliff hanger endings really bug me in series so I'll be waiting (but I have tons of back catalogue Westerfield to go to). You realise I am now also singing Istanbul, now Constantinople don't you?

Jeanne said...

Amanda, I'm sorry I was inexact. I was remembering the conversation in your comments about what "steampunk" is.

Jodie, Misery loves company! It's a persistent earworm, isn't it? I just drove myself crazy humming it throughout my hour-long trip through the grocery store.

kiirstin said...

I also had a major issue with the way this ended. I managed to get a copy before the release date, making the wait even (slightly) more than a year long. Somehow I had missed that this was intended to be a trilogy, so the "ending" was a shock and it made me cranky.

Anna said...

I hate it when books take a long time to get going and then end when the story is getting good. I think I'll take your advice and check it out when the series is completed.

Diary of an Eccentric

Kristen said...

It drives me nuts when the first book in a series or planned trilogy doesn't wrap up well enough to stand on its own without continuing the series. Of course, my dad claims that's not a drive for me, but a short putt. I have been considering getting this one for my eldest son for Christmas because I think it might suit him (plus I'm interested in the whole steampunk phenomenon--even if this might not totally qualify). But now I might reconsider. ::sigh::

Jeanne said...

Kiirsten, my daughter even warned me about the ending, but as you can tell, I was still cranky as all get-out!

Anna, it really doesn't take that long to get going. All Westerfeld books are captivating from almost the very first chapter, I think.

Kristen, is your son like you about planned trilogies??

Alison, I didn't mean Pullman; I was actually thinking of David R. Palmer, who wrote a wonderful book entitled Emergence and then another called Threshold and then he never wrote the third one!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Care said...

It's is interesting to me that I never can remember what this book is abt, then I read a review and think 'oh yea - I DO want to read this' but I'm going to take your advice and wait. :)

bermudaonion said...

I'm going to ask Carl what he thought about the ending. He was uncomfortable with the whole review process - I'm hoping the positive feedback he got today will encourage him to do more.

Corey Redekop said...

I can't wait for this one. I really enjoyed UGLIES.