The year is 1914 and Europe is preparing for war. Although the events leading to a world war are sudden, the lines have long been drawn between the Clanker and Darwinist nations. While Austria-Hungary and Germany put their faith in steam-driven iron machines and guns, the British Darwinists fabricate monstrous beasties as their weapons and ships.
At the center of the conflict is Alexsandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and son of the ill-fated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. With the death of assassination of his parents, Alek’s title is worthless; his own country ready to betray him. Only a battle-worn Stormwalker and a loyal crew stand between Alek and a fate similar to his parents as the young prince goes into hiding.
Meanwhile, Deryn Sharp is a girl hiding a monstrous secret to join the British Air Service. Disguised as boy, Deryn can hold her own as an airman. But the risk of discovery is as constant as the danger of battler as her airship flies nearer to battle.
Born in two different worlds, from different sides of the same war, everything will change when Alek and Deryn finally meet in Leviathan (2009) by Scott Westerfeld with illustrations by Keith Thompson. Until then, the only question is: Do you oil your war machines? Or do you feed them?
Leviathan is the first book in Westerfeld’s new series (a projected trilogy, I’m almost certain). It is nothing like his vastly popular Uglies series or anything else he has written. The first thing readers need to know about this book is that it does not fit into the traditional science fiction niche that so comfortably houses Uglies (and Peeps). Instead, Leviathan is a steampunk* novel.
Instead of looking to the future as science fiction often does steampunk looks to the past creating an alternate history where it was not the modern era but the Victorian era who made all of the great technological advances. Instead of the technology we have today, steampunk suggests a world running on clockwork mechanisms, brass and steel, and in the case of Leviathan genetic engineering that we can still only imagine.
That is the world that Alek and Deryn inhabit–a world changing before their eyes as World War One begins in Europe. Westerfeld weaves the two teenagers’ stories together to create a seamless picture of both the Clanker and Darwinist lifestyle. Their two paths also converge as both characters realize that their futures lie far from their European homes.
Leviathan might be the book I was most excited to read in 2009. It was also one of the best. As usual, Westerfeld’s writing is pitch-perfect blending science, action, and brilliant characters to create a book made of pure magic. It hardly seemed possible, but for me this book has far surpassed all of Westerfeld’s previous (awesome) books.
Keith Thompson’s brilliant illustrations set the mood for the story and bring the world of the Clankers and Darwinists to life in intricate line drawings**. The American/Canadian and Australian editions of Leviathan also feature full color endpapers with an allegorical map of Europe as drawn by Thompson*** that only adds to the book’s charm.
The series will continue with Behemoth.
* You can read more about steampunk in “Steampunk: Reclaiming Tech for the Masses” by Lev Grossman in the December 14, 2009 issue of Time Magazine (Grossman quotes Westerfeld in the article)
**If you need even more reasons to read this book, be sure to watch the Leviathan Trailer on Youtube to see some of Thompson’s illustrations quite literally come to life.
***You can view The Grand Map on Westerfeld’s blog where Thompson also provides an in-depth commentary on the making of the map.
Possible Pairings: The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, The Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare (5/10 release date), Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist: Flight of the Phoenix by R. L. LaFevers with illustrations by Kelly Murphy, Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, Firefly (television series) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (graphic novel and movie), The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne (television series), Serenity (movie)