Autumn is in full swing in New York City, which means that JJ is approaching hibernation mode. My inherent tendency when the weather grows cool and the days grow shorter is to curl up under the covers with a White-Harp and read, read, read (and occasionally gorge on Indian food). I have about a million things I need to take care of (including grocery shopping), but my first reaction is to snuggle with a fuzzy Harp and never leave the bed. This means that not only errands are pushed to the wayside, but things like blogging and book reviewing are also forgotten.
While I was in DC last week visiting Mum, we made a stop by the nearest bookstore for something to read. She wanted something light and funny, so I recommended David Sedaris’ ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, which I think she’ll enjoy, especially the France sections. Not so sure about the drugs and homosexuality though. Oh well.
I got myself Scott Westerfeld‘s LEVIATHAN, but I will admit it was a close call between that and Joshua Gaylord‘s HUMMINGBIRDS, both of which had co-op at the front of the store. But because I am cheap—and because I love steampunk—I went with LEVIATHAN. (The one advantage to being a lover of YA is that it is significantly cheaper than adult fiction.)
Review of LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld
It is 1914 and the world hovers on the edge of war. The world is divided between the Darwinists and the Clankers: those who fight with genetically modified beasts and those who wage war with machines. In the dead of night, Prince Aleksander is awoken by his trusted advisors to hear that his parents—Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife—have been murdered in Sarajevo. He and his advisors make for the Swiss border, piloting a Stormwalker machine through the darkness to escape the Clanker forces who see him as a pawn for the Austro-Hungarian throne.
Meanwhile in Darwinist Britain, Deryn Sharp wants nothing more than to join the Air Service and fly. But as a girl she is banned from joining, so she takes matters into her own hands and disguises herself. She is a brilliant airman and is soon assigned to The Leviathan, an enormous fabricated beast and the pride of the British Air Service. But her true identity is in danger of being discovered, especially when they take on a sharply observant female scientist with top secret cargo, bound for Constantinople.
LEVIATHAN is a bit difficult to summarize as it contains two different stories: Alek’s and Deryn’s, and their paths don’t cross until nearly three-quarters of the way through the book. I will confess to being much more fascinated by Deryn’s story, not only because she’s a cross-dressing girl (a favourite trope of mine), but because the Darwinist world is more interesting than the Clankers’. In this universe, scientists have already broken the genetic code—DNA or “life chains” as Deryn calls it—and have used it to engineer fantastic working beasts. Westerfeld lightly touches on the religio-social ramifications of genetic engineering and I was intrigued by the little, detailed mechanics of The Leviathan.
By contrast, the Clanker powers are more traditionally steampunk: steampowered machines that walk across land like Japanese mechas. Cool, but I’ve seen it before (usually in anime like The Vision of Escaflowne and Fullmetal Alchemist) and if nothing else, Westerfeld can build a world like there’s no tomorrow. Darwinists are so unusual and unique, I wanted to read more about them.
On the other hand, Alek is the one with the more interesting story and arc and I thought Westerfeld balanced the two quite nicely. I just wish the two narrative threads were woven together sooner, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book. I also thought LEVIATHAN superior to the UGLIES books: while the world of UGLIES was fascinating and new, I thought Westerfeld didn’t sufficiently follow through on the issues he raised and that ultimately, UGLIES and the sequels felt gimmicky and “pretty-minded”.
In LEVIATHAN, I felt Westerfeld had a refreshing take on The Great War (which I think is the more interesting of the World Wars) and that the Darwinist/Clanker conflict was organic to the story. This is the first of a series, but can be read alone. Recommended.