Reviewed by Andrew Zimmerman Jones
Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy is an epic about an alternate-history version of World War I … and a great example of how steampunk can really work well when it’s firing on all cylinders (both literally and figuratively). In this, the military conflict isn’t just political, but also centers around an ideological difference about technology. The British and Russians have embraced Charles Darwin’s biological insights to breed massive war beasts, while the German alliance put their faith in mechanical (frequently multi-legged) battle machines.
In addition to the global conflict, the major tension in the story centers around two young characters – one from each side of the battle – who are living with their own secrets in the midst of the war. One is a girl disguised as a boy so that she can serve in the British military upon the living zeppelin Leviathan. The other is a prince (and secret heir to the Austrian Empire) on the run from his own people.
On top of all of that, there’s also a romance … even though one of the participants doesn’t realize it for quite some time.
The first book of the series, Leviathan, sets up the basis for the war, which begins (as in the case of the true history) when Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated. His son, Alek, discovers that the Pope has signed a secret letter naming him heir to the entire Austrio-Hungary Empire … but the letter contains a provision that it’s valid only upon the death of the current Emperor, who it seems may have been part of the conspiracy to murder his father. Alek, along with some of his father’s most trusted men, goes into hiding in the Alps in the belly of a mechanized battle walker.
This book also introduces the British airship, Leviathan, which gives the book (and trilogy) its name, along with teenage crewman Dylan Sharpe (who is really the female Deryn!). The British battle using creatures bred specifically for the purposes of war. In this case, that means that Leviathan is sort of like a giant whale that is filled with hydrogen (produced by various microbes and other beasties that live throughout it). Small lizards scurry across the ship’s ropes and lines, carrying messages between crewmen by mimicking messages like parrots. Propulsion is provided by waving cilia. For battle, the ship keeps a horde of flechette bats, which eat metal and then dive at enemy aircraft, spitting the metal projectiles like bullets.
When Leviathan finds itself damaged (injured?) in the mountains, the two plotlines dovetail together nicely. Alek’s men are able to use their mechanical knowledge to clreplace the damaged biological systems and get the ship flying again. Not wanting to become a political hostage to the British, Alek must keep his identity a secret, even from his new friend, Deryn, while he works with the British in an effort to survive the war and, ultimately, to claim his birthright.
Behemoth continues the story, telling about their adventures in Turkey, as Alek attempts to spark a revolution in the Ottoman Empire. This delves deeply into the political situation behind the war. As someone who doesn’t really know much about the Ottoman Empire during this era, I thought this book was a lot of fun. Since it’s alternate history, any historical inaccuracies can be overlooked, but it certainly had a feel of authenticity to it.
The story in this book is really about the growing relationship between Deryn and Alek. They spent the first book hectically running and/or floating around Europe, but they now have the opportunity to spend time getting to know each other, developing friendship and trust, and even stronger emotions (on the part of Deryn, at least).
Finally, Goliath brings in the historical figure of Serbian-American scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla, who is trying to end the war with an electrically-charged superweapon of his own design. The problem, of course, is that the “enemy” in the war is Alek’s own nation of Austria, which puts him in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether he’s comfortable with helping the British use a superweapon against his homeland … the very homeland of which he will someday become Emperor!
In addition to the great story, each volume contains a number of beautiful illustrations (some of them shown at Westerfeld’s Leviathan page and in August there will be The Manual of Aeronautics: An Illustrated Guide to the Leviathan Series as well) which add immense value to these books. I actually listened to the first two books on audiobook, but still went out and bought the hardcopy editions, largely so I’d have the artwork. The visually stunning nature of the high-action concept makes it a natural choice for adaptation to graphic novel or film (either animated or live-action/CGI), a definite possibility given that Westerfeld’s Uglies series is being made into a film already.
If the trilogy has one flaw, it’s that the concept is much more expansive than the books themselves. I ended the trilogy thinking, “That’s all there was?” … but in a good way. Instead of being really disappointed, I just wanted to see more of the story. The series is laser-focused on the adventures of Alek and Deryn, and the storyline surrounding them is fully resolved within the trilogy.
I also felt there was a lot that could have been said about the nature of technology and our relationship to it, about the computer revolution versus the biotech revolution, which Westerfeld mostly steers clear of. There are hints at it, to be sure, but he probably wisely doesn’t beat this thematic drum too hard. Still, it was the deft way the thematic material was woven throughout the Uglies trilogy (Amazon, B&N) that made it one of my favorite series of all times. Leviathan is extremely good, but falls a bit short of must-read. (I’d call it 4 out of 5 stars, overall, with 3 stars being an enjoyable but unremarkable book and 5 stars being a must-read book.)
Still, there’s clearly some very cool stuff going on in the world that Westerfeld has created, both the part that we see in the trilogy and the part that isn’t shown directly. I’d love to see more stories in this setting, depicting more battles between the British beasties and the Clanker war machines.
One other nice feature of the books is that each one ended with an Afterward in which Westerfeld discussed the true historical concepts that he incorporated into the story, and where he deviated from the true history. For example, Ferdinand historically had multiple children, but in the series he has only the single son. Given that this is a young adult series, I really appreciate that sort of addition. When I was a teen, I loved to read about the research that went into my favorite books (and still do, actually) and I commend Westerfeld on including this material. It adds a fine finishing touch to an already great series of books.
Other Steampunk Spotlight posts:
- The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer with S.J. Chambers
- Victoriana RPG update
- Kings of Air and Steam board game
Andrew Zimmerman Jones is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He has been a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest and received Honorable Mention in the 2011 Writer’s Digest Science Fiction/Fantasy Competition. In addition to being a contributing editor to Black Gate magazine, Andrew is the About.com Physics Guide and author of String Theory For Dummies. You can follow his exploits on Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+.