Leviathan -- Scott Westerfeld
October 2009 by Simon Pulse
434 pages 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.
Over the summer I read a lot of books for my adolescent lit course, and Leviathan was by far my favorite. The world building was intricate, the characters were real and funny, the plot line was fast-paced and exciting, the illustrations were amazing. Since reading it I have recommended it to most everyone I've come in contact with. This is one of the few books I finished and then immediately had to get my hands on the sequels.
Leviathan was my first real experience with steam punk and it gave me a great impression of the genre. The illustrations added so much to the story and gave me a feel for the characters as well as the world. The pictures guided, without limiting, my mental picture of Deryn, the Leviathan, mech suits, and all the other creation in Westerfeld's world. I was skeptical about the Darwinists at first. A flying whale airship? I could accept that in Dr. Who, but in WWI Europe? However, Westerfeld pulls it off convincingly with the ecosystem of fabricated creatures, a sentient air ship, and the cleverest ferret-things that you sadly don't meet until book two.
Westerfeld does a wonderful job with the characters. Everyone we meet is fresh and interesting. I loved Deryn. She was a no nonsense woman of action, who occasionally dreams of love without making the romance take center stage (one of my serious pet peeves about most YA lit). She keeps a cool head in the face of danger and wields a hot tongue all the time. I wish my imagination had a better Scottish voice because Deryn has some feisty speeches. Alek starts out as a static plot device used to move the story along by getting everyone into a series of scrapes, but he gets better as the series continues. He becomes more decisive, a better leader, and just more fun. Deryn and Alek felt younger than their stated ages, but I think that caters to the intended audience.
Going into the book I wondered how Westerfeld would handle his alternate history. You can't just have your characters stop WWI from happening; that's much too big a change. Westerfeld manages to keep the characters a small part of the worldwide conflict without making them insignificant. Alek and Deryn do become more involved in world politics as the series progresses, but by book three Westerfeld has built up the world enough that the changes he makes are believable.
For my summer reading I was supposed to read 20-30 books from all sorts of genres, so I didn't really have time to spend on Behemoth and Goliath, but I couldn't resist--I had to know what happened next. So I ignored the books I was supposed to be reading and indulged in the world of Leviathan. It's been a while since a series drew me in so completely. However, Leviathan's story is complete in itself; it could be a stand alone novel. It doesn't have one of those cliffhanger must know what happens next endings. You finish the book dying to know what happens next because you love the world and the characters and the story, not because you're left hanging. Leviathan is a fantastic read and the entire series now lives on my bookshelves.