Steampunk is not a sweaty Ramones concert: Leviathan by Scott WesterfeldScott Westerfeld to write a bad book. I've read almost everything by this author (the Uglies series, Midnighters series, Peeps and its sequel, The Last Days, So Yesterday) and loved it all - he's one of my "go to" authors who will never let me down. That said, I was REALLY nervous about him writing what was described as an alternate history/steampunk novel. It sounded like one of those movies where the good young actor goes outside their comfort zone (say, romantic comedy) and ends up with latex facial features to make them look less attractive so we can focus on the story. Sometimes it works and sometimes you say, "the poor thing - they were trying SO hard, though" as you search through your Junior Mints box because you can't bear to look at the screen one more minute.
Well, no danger of that being the case here! Westerfeld does not disappoint and in fact takes it a step farther (I really want to explore more steampunk now) enticing the reader into a whole new subgenre. Steampunk is a fascinating cross-over area - sometimes it's alternate history, sometimes fantasy, sometimes science fiction - and I was floored by how young this movement is (it's only been around since the 1980s/1990s). The main crux of it appears to be that the world of the book has a Victorian flavor, particularly in the nature of all or part of that world using steam energy as a source of fuel for machinery (some of the art is truly cool and has actually inspired computer cases and clocks that you can actually buy). Authors often cite classic writers like Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Mark Twain, and Mary Shelley as inspiration, so chances are if you cut your teeth on this author list, you'll feel pretty comfortable with steampunk. It's important to note that female characters are often constrained by similar social norms (and usually stuck in a corset) which adds an interesting tension to these stories. (Some steampunk fans get really, really into the clothing and accessories piece of the genre.)
Leviathan places the reader in a world on the cusp of World War I by focusing on two characters, the young Hapsburg, Prince Aleksander, son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his commoner wife, Sophie (Aleksander is pure fiction - Franz Ferdinand had three children but none of them were named Aleksander) and Deryn Sharp, a young woman who has disguised herself as a boy in order to enlist in the British Air Service.
But here's the steampunk twist. Aleksander has grown up in Central Europe surrounded by what the British call "clankers" - complex steam-powered machines whose design is often inspired by biology. Alek is an excellent pilot of these machines and has learned to guide them just as his real-life contemporary might have focused on a fine seat for his horseback riding. Deryn on the other hand has grown up amid Darwinists who in their history discovered the secret of DNA during the Victorian age with the subsequent ability to manipulate and change biological creatures in order to serve their technological needs. The ships she "flies" in the Air Service are either small (think jellyfish-like) or large (whale-based airships) all genetically altered to produce hydrogen as a byproduct of their existence - hydrogen which allows them to fly with a crew and serve whatever purpose the military might have in mind. Each side looks down on the other with a little fear and derision about the source of each technology, so the clash of cultures is as much a part of the book as the espionage and political machinations.
Both characters are well-drawn and compelling although they come across as rather young and innocent (yet plucky and resilient) in this first book of the series. Alek has suffered the assassination of his parents and, surrounded by a few loyal supporters, sets off with enemies in hot pursuit for the safety of Switzerland. Deryn, known as the boy Dylan to the Air Service, has a rough first flight as a new recruit placing her over the English channel where she is rescued by Leviathan, a massive biological airship. With war on the horizon she is quickly incorporated into the crew and begins a truly hands-on education as midshipman. The two meet when Deryn's ship meets potential disaster not far from Alek's neutral Swiss lair.
I'd be remiss to not mention a few spectacular details about this book - like the ILLUSTRATIONS. Westerfeld partnered with illustrator Keith Thompson, a fantasy and science fiction artist. Thompson's work is astonishing in its beauty and detail and seems to spring from this new world as if it had given birth to it. The other piece I couldn't resist was Westerfeld's compelling ability to create a unique vocabulary to go along with his steampunk world - a popular exclamation is "Barking Spiders!" and I've caught myself yelling it a couple of times when startled, considerably cleaning up my occasional potty mouth. Anyone who found that "Bubbly" become part of their personal dictionary with the Uglies series, will find themselves tucking away new and fabulous phrases to dazzle and confuse friends and family.
Leviathan is a terrific addition to Westerfeld's oeuvre. Librarians and teachers will find it has appeal for both middle grades and high school (as well as adults interested in alternate reality or steampunk). Thankfully, the sequel Behemoth is due out in October of 2010, so we won't have too long to wait for the next installment.
A note for Scott Westerfeld fans. His website has a lot of video trailers for Leviathan which are excellent and might be a good thing to watch with a friend you're trying to convince to read this book after you've enjoyed it. His blog (the default main page on the website) is an excellent primer about writing and publishing, so for would-be authors this could be a terrific resource. Westerfeld is also on Twitter and is one of the BEST and funniest authors (I've actually snorted water out my nose following some of his tweets on the Leviathan book tour) in the medium of 140 characters or less. If that's not the sign of a talented writer, what is?