Friday, February 4, 2011

Book Review: Leviathan [2009]

The Library of Congress subject headings for Scott Westerfeld's alternate history novel Leviathan (first in a trilogy) are: 1. Science fiction. 2. Imaginary creatures--Fiction. 3. Princes--Fiction. 4. War--Fiction. 5. Genetic engineering--Fiction.These descriptors indicate, more than the general heading of "steampunk" that I think the book is labeled with, how focused the worldmaking actually is on genetically engineered living creatures. For example, the hydrogen-filled airship Leviathan itself is a genetically modified whale populated with symbiotic creatures, all coexisting in a delicate balance. The purpose of this geeky librarian subject heading exercise is to illustrate that Leviathan really wasn't what I expected (an airship adventure along the lines of Airborn, I guess), it was OMG ALAN CUMMING!

Ahem. What was I saying?

Leviathan is set in an alternate 1914, where world powers--the western Darwinists, who have discovered how to create living amalgams, including war machines, and the eastern Clankers, who prize strictly machine-based technology--are on the brink of war. As in our time, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand is the crucial event that sparks international conflict, only in this case his death also has enormous repercussions for the Austro-Hungarian succession, in the form of his (secretly legitimized by the Pope) son Alek. There are a lot of people who apparently want to see Alek dead as a result, and his father's trusted retainers abscond with him in the night in a Stormwalker fighting machine. After dodging various forms of death, Alek and his crew intersect unexpectedly with a British airship, the Leviathan, on its way to Constantinople on a secret mission. The Leviathan is home to Deryn Sharp, a Scottish girl whose intense desire to join the British Air Service led her to adopt "Dylan," a brash male persona. When Alek rescues Deryn in the aftermath of a German attack, their fates become inextricably linked with the Leviathan and its mysterious cargo as they travel toward the Ottoman Empire.

Although it's not that clear from my synopsis, Alek and Deryn have alternating viewpoints throughout the book. Both are interesting, flawed characters who experience some growth throughout the course of the novel, although they have many miles to go. It almost doesn't matter, because everything is brilliantly, perfectly narrated by Alan Cumming, who should be a professional actor or something! He is THAT GOOD. It also helps to have the Scottish accents read by someone who is actually Scottish, for once.

Grade: A- (for the audio version with ALAN CUMMING, probably a B otherwise)

Random Thoughts:

I would definitely recommend this book to Airborn fans, as well as to Naomi Novik fans for the alternate history of Europe/warfare angle. I really appreciated that Westerfeld included a section in the back about what was really true in the book, because otherwise I would have headed straight to the internet/Encyclopedia to try to figure it out.

Despite losing the ALAN CUMMING factor, if you are forced to read the book on paper, it does have a ton of lovely illustrations. As usual, I recommend experiencing it both ways, if not at the exact same time.

The back of the book says that "Deryn is a girl disguised as a guy in the British Air Service. She must fight for her cause--and protect her secret--at all costs." Really, jacket copy writers, that's the best you could come up with?

When I was searching for Deryn's last name, I ran across Leviathan fanfic. Quite a bit, actually. At least it was only rated K through Teen.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes


Lisa said...

Definitely on target with the OMG!!!! Alan Cumming!!!! He's what made the book for me. I hadn't read any other steampunk books before Leviathan, but decided to take a risk since the reader was OMG!!! ALAN CUMMING!!

Good thing, too. I loved it, and am now in the middle of Behemoth. Sadly, I will now have to wait until later this year for the 3rd installment.

Amanda! said...

Man, I hate it when people call steampunk scifi. Not the same thing. *sighs* But I should know better than to expect good subject headings, lol.