Leviathan is the first novel in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, a series of young adult novels that present an alternate World War I revolving around a different type of warfare—the steam-powered war machines of the Clanker powers against the genetically-manipulated beasts of the Darwinist powers.
Leviathan alternates its focus between two major characters: Prince Aleksander of Hohenberg, the teenage son of the assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Deryn Sharp, a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to serve in the British Air Service after the death of her father in a ballooning accident. As the novel begins, Alek is forced to flee after the assassination of his parents, while Deryn (or Dylan, as she disguises herself) suddenly finds herself aboard the British Air Service’s most prized airship: the titular Leviathan.
An alternate history—Clankers versus Darwinists
While Westerfeld maintains many real elements of the First World War (such as the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand), they take a backseat to his alternate version (such as Alek himself—the Archduke never had a son named Aleksander), which is probably for the better. He does a wonderful job of presenting the two major aspects of his alternate World War to us through the eyes of the two main characters. Alek’s perspective introduces us to the Clanker powers, which consist primarily of Germany and his homeland, Austria-Hungary, when the war begins. Their instruments of war are battleships and steam-powered war machines that range from small two-legged walkers to massive six- or eight-legged frigates. Deryn’s perspective introduces us to the Darwinist powers—Great Britain, Russia, and a number of other other countries that remain neutral throughout Leviathan. In direct opposition to the Clankers, the Darwinists use genetic manipulation to create creatures bred specifically for war: bears as big as houses, krakens that can crush ships, and airships such as the Leviathan that are entire living ecosystems. The contrast between the Clankers and the Darwinists (and in turn between Alek and Deryn) is stark, and in many ways their differences form the heart of the story.
Although Leviathan is a novel about the First World War, it is far from epic in scope. This isn’t a complaint—Westerfeld has crafted a very tight story that keeps its focus on its two main characters. Being the first book in a trilogy, Leviathan’s primary objective is to bring its characters together and introduce the reader to Westerfeld’s alternative history, and it does so wonderfully.
Keith Thompson provides numerous black-and-white illustrations throughout the book, and they’re one of the novel’s greatest strengths. There’s no lack of Thompson’s work: every few pages we are treated to a character sketch or a full-page panel that captures the action of Westerfeld’s story in all its glory. These illustrations are simply gorgeous and always work to enhance the story, bringing Westerfeld’s characters and world to life in a way that writing simply can’t accomplish; Thompson’s work meshes seamlessly with Westerfeld’s, and they complement each other perfectly. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that Thompson’s work often outshines Westerfeld’s throughout much of Leviathan. Thompson will often box in his drawings but bring some aspect of the picture outside the box, giving his work a three-dimensional illusion. While reading Leviathan, I found it horribly tempting to flip through the book just to look at the illustrations (which I often did), even at the risk of spoiling the story. They’re just that impressive.
Why should you read this book?
Leviathan is simply a good story. No, it’s not a great story—it isn’t filled with unexpected twists and turns, and it doesn’t have a cast of deep, complex characters—but it is a lot of fun and plays around with a number of interesting ideas. Don’t start Leviathan expecting a masterpiece, because you won’t get it. But if you like history and steampunk and are looking for a solid adventure story, Leviathan is the perfect read.