Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book Review: Leviathan and Behemoth

First, I should note that my wife deserves all the credit. She's the one who first read Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan and Behemoth, and she insisted that I read them, too. It took very little persuasion, as I love the illustrator, Keith Thompson, who not only draws the inside covers (sadly not some of the actual covers) but also has gorgeous full-page black-and-white illustrations throughout both books.

The premise of the books is that the First World War is about to break out, but instead of using trucks, planes, and tanks, the Central Powers use walking war machines, whereas the Allied forces use specially-bred war monsters. The war is thus between the "Clankers" and the "Darwinists," and it's as much a contest between the machine-minded Clanker outlook versus the unnatural ecosystems of the Darwinists as it is about the imperialism and nationalism that led to the historical Great War.

The plot of the first novel focuses on two young people. Alek is the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Historically, the archduke had three children, none of them Alek, but that was altered for the sake of the plot). The other main character is Deryn, a Scottish lassie who dresses as a boy so that she can join the British airfleet.

Deryn, disguised as "Dylan," soon finds herself assigned to the Leviathan, an airship that is actually an ecosystem of thousands of individual animals, all gathered around an enormous hydrogen-exhaling whale. Alek, meanwhile, is on the run from the Germans following the assassination of his father and mother. The Germans fear that Alek may destabilize Austria-Hungary during wartime, despite the fact that he is not a legitimate heir to his father's title, because his mother was a commoner. Alek therefore flees inside a Stormwalker armored walker, along with his master of mechaniks, his fencing tutor, and two soldiers.

Needless to say, things get complicated fast. The Leviathan is on a top-secret mission to deliver a mysterious cargo to Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans are Clankers, but they have not yet joined the war, and with any luck the Leviathan's mission may be able to keep them out of it. The mission will be risky, though, and before long they may end up needing the help of a certain Austrian prince.

I knew that I would love Keith Thompson's drawings of both the fantastic war monsters of the Darwinists and the walking battleships of the Clankers, and I wasn't disappointed. Leviathan has me convinced that no other artist could pull off the task of illustrating both the machines and the monsters.

What caught me by surprise was how good a job Scott Westerfeld did in presenting the setting and events of the novel. His descriptions are vivid and engaging. He constantly had me wondering what sorts of research he did to prepare for the story. Either he spent time in balloons, airships, and armored vehicles, or he has a very vivid imagination... probably both. The characters are well-developed and the dialog is great. I know that Westerfeld is better known for his Uglies series, which I had previously had no interest in. Given how well he wrote Leviathan, I may have to rethink this and give Uglies a try.

The sequel to Leviathan is Behemoth, and it's a worthy successor indeed. I don't want to talk too much about its plot, since it might contain spoilers for Leviathan, but as the German propaganda poster above suggests, it takes place in Istanbul. The story has some great twists and character development for both Deryn and Alek, including some unexpected humor that I felt worked extremely well.

It also features a wee beastie that I can't say too much about, except that I wish I could have one in real life!

I have a hard time finding anything to criticize in these novels. They can get rather dark, for YA novels, as Alek struggles with his parents' assassination and Deryn recalls her father's own death in a balloon accident. Characters die, as is probably inevitable in a story about a war.

That said, we see very little of the war itself in either novel. I hope that, once this trilogy is done, Westerfeld and Thompson return to explore the battles. I would love to see some Clanker machines fighting Darwinist monsters. I can understand the author's hesitance to include this, however, as he is very careful about including anything that might glorify war.

My only other comment is that the story has no real villain. Alek is being hunted by the Germans, and both Alek and Deryn would like to stop the war from escalating, but other than the nebulous concepts of "the Germans" and "the War," there is really no single entity that the characters are struggling against. Given that my blog is called Supervillainous, you can probably guess that I like a good villain.

These are all minor complaints, and they were all things that occurred to me only after I had finished both books. The stories were a wild ride, and because they're written to be accessible to a younger audience, readers can zip through them in a very short time. I'm looking forward to the third book, Goliath, and I would recommend that everybody check out the first two books immediately!

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