Scott Westerfeld – Leviathan

My holidays are over and I’ve got some reviews to catch up on. Since the theme of the month over at Literaturschock was “books with extras”, I picked this steampunk young adult book with loads of gorgeous illustrations. There’s a small taste below. I wasn’t totally convinced and I definitely don’t understand the hype, but I did have fun reading this book.

by Scott Westerfeld

illustrated by: Keith Thompson
Simon Pulse, 2009
pages: 246
copy: ebook
series: Leviathan #1

my rating: 5,5/10

First sentence: The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised.

It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet. Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men.
Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.
With the Great War brewing, Alek’s and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever.

Genetically modified animals that are used as airships and giant war machines? Yes, please! With my head spinning happily from the wealth of ideas I expected in this book, I dove into the adventure. And was mostly disppointed. Aleksandar, called Alek, was happily playing at war in his room when count Volger and master Klopp get him and flee across the country in a Stormwalker, a rather large machine, whose steampunky-ness was just to my liking. Since they stay in this machine and nothing much happens for about 100 pages, I got bored pretty soon.

But Alek is not the only protagonist. We also follow Deryn Sharp who disguises herself as a boy, Dylan, to enter the Royal Army and become a member on an airship. The author’s plotting, some luck, and a whole lot of suspension of desbelief, lead her to the Leviathan, a whale that is also a ship – and pretty much the coolest thing in this book. Westerfeld’s ideas may not hold up to closer looks and use of logic but they sure are fun to read about. An entire floating eco-system of a whale (inside of which you can wakl around, by the way), bees fléchette bats and dog-like sniffers. That’s what I was looking for.

The characters stay incredibly shallow though and beyond the basic information of who they are and how they got into this particular situation, we don’t learn anything about them, they don’t grow as characters and they don’t show any depth. Side characters are pretty much the same but for some reason, I didn’t mind so much with them. A big minus for characters, though, because you know me… if I don’t care about the characters, the book has already lost a chance at brilliance.

I was surprised to find out how thin the plot was. In a slim novel like this with some great ideas, I was expecting action to follow action. But for a reason. Being randomly attacked while trying to get out of the country may be accurate but doesn’t make for a very interesting story. The plot actually only starts kicking off in the middle of the book, when our two protagonists meet. That’s when I got the Leviathan fever and couldn’t put the book down. I thoroughly enjoyed the second half and the ending of the story. However, if books 2 and 3 offer equally thin plotlines, Scott Westerfeld could have just put them into one novel. Just sayin…

THE GOOD: Great and fresh ideas, a new spin on steampunk. Beautiful illustrations make it a vivid adventure that will leave you wanting more.
THE BAD: Flat characters, surprisingly little plot and a very open ending (you kind of want to read on).
THE VERDICT: Maybe I really am too old for YA books. I think if I had read this 15 years ago, I would have loved it. If you don’t mind lacking character growth so much and if you like steampunk, go straight ahead. This ended up being quite some fun after all.

RATING: 5,5/10  Not great but with some potential.

The Leviathan Trilogy:

  1. Leviathan
  2. Behemoth
  3. Goliath

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