Behemoth is the second entry in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, a young adult series that tells the story of Prince Aleksander of Hohenberg, the teenage son of the assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Deryn Sharp, a girl who has disguised herself as a boy named Dylan in order to serve in the British Air Service. While aboard the British airship Leviathan, Alek and Deryn are caught up in an alternate version of the First World War raging between the Clanker and Darwinist powers.
After their narrow escape at the end of Leviathan, Alek and Deryn continue their journey aboard the Leviathan to the Ottoman Empire, a country that remains officially neutral and could potentially alter the course of the war in favor of either side. After a German warship nearly destroys the Leviathan with a deadly new weapon, Alek and Deryn both find themselves alone in Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, as the country teeters on the brink of war.
An expanded world
In Leviathan, Westerfeld introduced us to the basics of his alternate history. In Behemoth, he expands into new territory. Behemoth is larger in scope; we get to see more of the Clanker powers, including powerful new war machines and deadly weapons such as the Tesla cannon. New Darwinist creations are introduced as well: the exceedingly odd perspicuous loris, which provides a curious sort of comic relief, and eventually even the titular Behemoth, a swimming monstrosity that can devour entire warships.
Istanbul provides a fascinating backdrop to the story. While the Ottoman Empire has the potential to join either side in the war, it is a Clanker country for all intents and purposes, and the Clanker influence is everywhere in Istanbul. Enormous steam-powered walkers guard different districts in the city, and gigantic mechanical elephants walk the streets. The sultan himself sits before a massive metal statue that imitates his movements with motorized grace. Westerfeld brings Istanbul to life in glorious detail, and this new setting is refreshing after the glacial backdrop of Leviathan.
A more mature (and expansive) cast
Alek and Deryn are forced to grow up a bit in Behemoth. When Alek is essentially left to fend for himself in Istanbul, he begins to show true initiative by joining the city’s revolutionaries and taking on an active role in overthrowing the sultan. Deryn is given her first commanding role aboard the Leviathan, and soon the struggles and responsibilities of command weigh heavily on her shoulders. Her attraction to Alek takes on a prominent role in Behemoth, but the one-sided romantic subplot between them serves more as a distraction and a plot device than anything else.
We get to meet some fascinating new characters as well: Eddie Malone, a reporter for the New York World, adds needed complexity to the conflict in Istanbul, and spunky revolutionary Lilit and her father Zaven spice up the story, often outshining Alek and Deryn themselves. Unfortunately, the mysterious Dr. Barlow remains, once again, mysterious.
Beyond the writing
Keith Thompson’s illustrations again bring the story to life in Behemoth. His work hasn’t changed much since Leviathan, and it certainly didn’t need to: the full-page panels and even double-page spreads flesh out the world of the Ottoman Empire beautifully, capturing the lavish backdrop of Istanbul in gorgeous black-and-white. As in Leviathan, Thompson’s work is the icing on the cake in Behemoth, and he often outshines Westerfeld himself. Thompson has proved to be an integral part in the telling of the Leviathan story; he contributes an essential window between Westerfeld’s world and the reader, and the Leviathan series simply wouldn’t be as effective without Thompson’s work.
Why should you read this book?
If you enjoyed Leviathan, you will doubtlessly enjoy Behemoth. Westerfeld brings back everything that worked well in Leviathan and expands his alternate history with exciting new characters, creatures, and machines. The canvas of Istanbul serves as a stark contrast to the frozen Alps of Leviathan, giving the story a fresh new flavor. Although Alek and Deryn are forced to mature throughout the course of Behemoth, they still don’t progress much as characters; however, Westerfeld introduces enough interesting new material into this installment to keep the story from ever becoming dull. Behemoth is a stellar sequel, and surpasses Leviathan in almost every way.