Author: Scott Westerfeld
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release date: October 6, 2009
Source: Borrowed from local library
Series: Leviathan #1
Summary: (from Goodreads) Prince Aleksander, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battletorn war machine and a loyal crew of men.
Deryn Sharp is a commoner, 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 World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn's paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.
First impressions: The opening scenes are quite intense, especially since we know the fate of the archduke, Alek's father. Still, I found this one slow to get into, just because I had to wrap my head around the world and its rules. The payoff of this extra upfront effort was fully realized by the end.
Lasting impressions: My goodness. I would follow these characters in this world to the end of the universe and back. Strange? Yes. Disarming? Oh, yes. But fantastically amazing as well.
Conflicting impressions: I found Deryn to be the much stronger character. We could have dropped Alek's perspective entirely and I wouldn't have cared.
Overall impressions: Once I got comfortable in this strange Clanker vs. Darwinist world, it didn't matter what the story was or where it was going. I can't remember the last time a fantasy setting so fully transported me as this book did. The Clankers favor steam-powered machines and the Darwinists favor engineered beasts. Both sides use their preferred methods to create huge fighting vessels which they start to use more frequently as World War I breaks out around them.
Deryn Sharp is a Darwinist in Britain who desperately wants to be an airman. The trouble is she's a girl. Off go the locks and on goes the restrictive and baggy clothes, and voila, a boy is created. She winds up on an air beast called the Leviathan, which is like a large zeppelin...if zeppelins were made out of living things. In this case, it's a whale.
The Darwinists' ecosystem machines were a bit hard for me to swallow. It wasn't that I couldn't fathom a world where scientists cobble together various life forms to create a new animal that serves their purposes (because really, are we that far off?). No, for me it was the incredulous idea that a large animal could be mutated into some kind of non-sentient creature that wouldn't mind its body used as an airship. The thought of traipsing around inside of a whale was really bothersome to me. Every time Deryn said "Poor beastie" I thought that if she really felt sorry for the blasted thing she'd stop stomping through its innards. But I realize the point of steampunk is not to break down every detail. I decided to go with it, accepted the beasties as a part of this world, and moved on.
On the Clanker side of things, we follow the Austro-Hungarian heir, Alek, as he escapes his home country and flees to Switzerland in a giant metal walker. His team of mentors accompany him, and there is not much love lost between them. Alek is a haughty, naive, and self-entitled prince, but he is also respectful of duty to country. He is perhaps more complex than Deryn, which meant we didn't get to know him quite as fully, and the coldness he has with his team didn't improve his warmth with the reader.
Once Alek and Deryn meet, however, things really start to get interesting. They race to get off a glacier where the Leviathan has crash landed near Alek's hideout, and by the end of the story these natural enemies are forced to form a somewhat shaky truce. It will be interesting to see how these two accomplish their individual goals while staying loyal to their respective causes.
This trilogy definitely needs to be read together, as this book ends just on the cusp of a new adventure for Deryn and Alek. It felt very "To be continued..." while still wrapping up nicely. That said, I won't die if I never get around to reading Behemoth. The motivating factor isn't the plot, here. What ultimately sets this book apart is its incredibly well developed setting, and the glorious dialogue Westerfeld built. My new favorite curse word/adjective is "barking."
I highly recommend this book to fantasy fans who have an interest in steampunk, particularly if you enjoy YA. I should also point out that the book is beautifully illustrated by Keith Thompson, which enhanced my enjoyment of the story.
Rating: 5/5 stars
Want a different perspective? Check out this review by Books Turn Brains.