Feb 12, 2010

YetiReview: Leviathan

30 Words or Less: A simplistic but imaginative story set in an alternate World War I that pits biological monstrosities against mechanical war machines as witnessed by a pair of young protagonists. Plus incredible sketches!

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Good: Clankers vs. Darwinists make Westerfeld’s imaginative world one that demands further exploration; The artwork accentuates the story perfectly, capturing scenes with exquisite detail; Book is an enjoyable adventure suitable for all ages.

The Bad: The scope of the novel is a little small (although this is more of a YA thing than a flaw); A few character inconsistencies; My book cover is upside down

Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan was the winner of the reader’s choice poll I held back in December. To be honest, I planned on reading it anyway and by the time the poll closed, I had already finished it. Like a lot of YA books, Leviathan doesn’t take a long time to read but still manages to leave an impression that still sticks months later. The inventiveness of Westerfeld’s re-imagined World War I represents top-notch speculation, regardless of the targeted age level. Through a pair of young protagonists, Leviathan presents a war not of political powers or economic mindsets but of scientific ideologies. Instead of the Allies and the Central Powers, Westerfeld’s Great War pits the Darwinists and their biologically engineered monstrosities against the mechanical prowess of the Clankers.

On the Darwinist side, Ms. Deryn Sharp joins the air corps of England under the guise of young male cadet. Patrolling the skies of Europe in a living dirigible bearing secret cargo, Deryn soon encounters a Clanker prince named Aleksander, the second of Westerfeld’s central characters. In the company of a band of Austrian loyalists and under the armored protection of a walking tank, Aleksander is fleeing the same men who betrayed and murdered his royal parents. The protagonists are a little bit stereotypical for YA fantasy but they fit perfectly within Westerfeld’s world. He also writes his characters with a sense of wonder for the undeniable strangeness for their world rather than the angsty teen voice that plagues lesser YA fiction.

The vast majority of this first book in Westerfeld's steampunk trilogy plus one follows Deryn and Aleksander's peregrinations across this alternate Europe. The trip itself is extremely well paced, conveying a sense of distance and exploration without becoming monotonous. Westerfeld strikes a balance between action and worldbuilding (notice I didn't say infodumping) and every scene seems to advance the story. These journeys are well paralleled in the gradual evolution of the book's cast. For the most part, each of the characters grows linearly into their roles as they gain experience and confidence. There is a hiccup early on in which some of the secondary characters behave strangely and appear to be unexpected antagonists. The actions these characters make are unnecessary and extremely illogical and can only be explained by an attempt to introduce early suspense (it fails at creating anything other confusion). Despite this slight misstep, the characters recover quickly and the rest of the book flows smoothly. In terms of YA character arcs, Leviathan is a prime example of how to grow your characters while keeping the story moving. Ultimately, Westerfeld brings his characters together, providing satisfactory closure to Leviathan in a action packed final act while setting up next year's follow up, Behemoth (October 2010).

Speaking of Behemoth, my biggest problem with Leviathan was that there wasn’t more of it. YA books typically have larger font which inflates the page count without additional content. Add to this fact that there were full page illustrations every five to ten pages (more on that later), and you're left with an extremely quick read. The characters change and the plot develops but Leviathan is more of an introduction than a separate story. It's definitely not a bad thing that Leviathan left me wanting more but I felt the book could have included a bit more. That being said, the book did end at a natural stopping point and including the next chapter in the story could have meant hundreds or more additional pages. This wouldn't be unwelcome but if additional story meant trimming the book as is, it would be hard to identify superfluous scenes. If anything a slightly smaller font size could have provided more room for story. And the illustrations absolutely have to stay in.

While they do boost the page count without impacting the amount of story, the illustrations take the book to the next level. An homage to the illustrated serials of Dickens and others, Keith Thompson’s beautiful artwork gives concrete vision to a steampunk world. While the descriptions of wondrous beasts and anachronistically complex mechanisms trigger the imagination, it can sometimes be difficult to reconcile the words on the page with the image in your mind’s eye. Thompson’s work provides an incredibly intricate level of detail and every drawing. The clich√© is that a picture is worth a thousand words and I probably poured over each of Thompson's pieces for at least as long as it would take me to read that number. I don't know if it would work in all aspects of genre fiction (sketches in a space opera) but in the early 20th century steampunk setting it couldn't work better.

Leviathan is yet another example of why Westerfeld is one of the premiere speculative YA authors writing today. The novel is perfect for any young reader looking for something different than the average YA fantasy and if you are a parent absolutely no material that could be considered even slightly objectionable by any rational person. My biggest reservations with the novel had more to do with the YA format than book itself and it's important to remember that I'm not the target audience. In the end, Leviathan is a worthwhile introduction to a fantastic world that I can’t wait to revisit.

1 comment:

  1. You express very similar opinions to my own after reading Leviathan. The characters were a little less developed than I would have hoped for, but my biggest complaint was that I wanted MORE. More action, more characters, more art, more of the fascinating world and chimerical creations. Even if it was a pretty shallow read, Leviathan was also a lot of fun, and I am eagerly awaiting Behemoth.


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