Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Published : Simon Pulse, 2009
Series : Book 1 of the Leviathan Series
Awards Won : Locus Young Adult Award
The Book :
”It is the cusp of World War I. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ genetically fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet.
Aleksandar Ferdinand, a Clanker, and Deryn Sharp, a Darwinist, are on opposite sides of the war. But their paths cross in the most unexpected way, taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure….One that will change both their lives forever. “

Scott Westerfeld is a well-known name in young adult fiction, though up until now I’d never read any of his work.  In honor of WWEnd’s “Young Adult Genre Fiction” month, I’m reviewing his most recent series, which starts with Leviathan.  Leviathan had a satisfying ending, to my mind, but it is clearly the first part of a larger story. The final volume of this series, Goliath, came out this past September, so I’m looking forward to being able to read the complete trilogy, uninterrupted!

My Thoughts:
Leviathan is a non-stop adventure that spans several European countries.  While it takes place during the start of World War I, many aspects of Westerfeld’s world differ from reality.  The most notable difference, of course, is the presence of fantastical technology.  The Clankers have powerful, steam-powered walkers, and the Darwinists have amazing animals fabricated from the ‘life strings’ of many different species.  These animals range from messenger lizards, to jellyfish-based airbeasts, to complicated floating ecosystems like the Leviathan airship of the book’s title.  Westerfeld spends a lot of time describing his imaginative creations, and they are also brought to life by Keith Thompson’s many beautiful illustrations (some of which can be seen on his website). 
While the technology is a major selling point of the story, Leviathan also features two engaging protagonists.  Alek Ferdinand (yes, that Ferdinand) is an aristocratic Clanker fugitive with a huge secret.  His parents made sure he was trained in mechaniks, swordfighting, and many languages, but he still has no idea how to deal with the world outside his family’s estate.  Deryn Sharp has a pretty major secret of her own—she’s joined the British military as a midshipman, posing as a boy.   Deryn mostly manages to keep everyone convinced of her gender through force of personality.  Her never-ending exuberance and boyish swagger make it seem like her life has always been a jump from one adventure to the next.  Deryn and Alek are opposites in many ways, though they are both fallible teenagers in the middle of very dangerous situations.
Though Deryn and Alek are exciting characters to follow, they seem to be written a little younger than their supposed age.  If the book had not specified that they were fifteen, I would have estimated an age of twelve or thirteen.  Even in the many illustrations, they appear to be shown as pre-teens, not teens.  In general, I would say that is in line with the targeted demographic, which I would guess to be middle schoolers (about 12-14 years old). This guess is based on the reading level, the portrayal of the protagonists, and the amount of questionable content (very little, save a few not-very-graphic battle scenes).  I don’t mean to say that someone older couldn’t enjoy it—I’m over a decade past that age group, and I still thought Leviathan was a lot of fun.
Aside from the constant thrills of the story, Leviathan is also concerned with portraying the interconnectedness of living systems.  One example of this can be seen in the Leviathan airship itself. In addition to the hydrogen-filled whale-like creature that makes up its main body, the Leviathan’s life and health rely on an ecosystem made up of birds, bats, bees, bacteria, curious hydrogen-sniffing animals, and many others.  If any one of the pieces of this system is missing, it will have disastrous effects on the whole. 
The Leviathan airship is also controlled by Captain Hobbes, which makes it a fairly clear reference to Thomas Hobbes’s famous work of the same name.  Hobbes’s work is an early example of social contract theory, and it describes an ideal government as a kind of enormous, complex creature composed of its living members. The themes of interdependence and cooperation are also repeated in various ways through the political discussions and actions of the novel.  While Leviathan is entertaining as an adventure story, there’s also plenty of discussion material for those who want to look beneath the surface.
My Rating : 4/5
Leviathan is an exciting, action-packed steampunk re-imagining of World War I, with fantastic technology that is brought to life through Keith Thompson’s frequent illustrations.  Though the protagonists, Alek and Deryn, seem younger than their fifteen years, they are engagingly intelligent and resourceful protagonists.  Leviathan also contains a subtext about the interdependence of living systems and the necessity of cooperation, making it a book worth discussion.  I’m starting Behemoth now, and I can’t wait to see what happens next! 


  1. "Non-stop adventure" is the best description of the Leviathan books I can think of. I haven't read Goliath yet, but Behemoth was a lot more of the constantly pulsing action (I sometimes felt it even went a bit overboard with the "non-stop" aspect, but not so much that it ruined the book, luckily).

  2. Thanks for the comment! I just finished "Behemoth", and I think I agree with you. I'm reading "Goliath" now, and it seems to be starting at a slightly slower pace.