Friday, November 25, 2011

Review: Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
Published : Simon Pulse, 2010
Series : Leviathan Trilogy, Book 2
Awards Nominated: Locus Young Adult Award
The Book :
"It is near the beginning of World War I, and the situation in Europe is spiraling out of control.  After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, battle lines have been drawn between ‘Clanker’ powers—whose technology involves mostly heavy machinery—and the ‘Darwinists’—who rely on fabricated animals.  A wild card in this scenario is the Ottoman Empire, which is currently maintaining fragile neutrality.  After Churchill ‘borrows’ a warship bought by the Ottomans, diplomatic relations between the Ottomans and the Darwinists begin to worsen.
It is into this situation that the Darwinist Leviathan airship soars, carrying with it the adventurous midshipman ‘Dylan’ Sharp and the fugitive Clanker aristocrat Aleksandar.  Dylan and Alek have forged a close friendship, though they both hold secrets. Alek may be the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and ‘Dylan’ is actually Deryn, a young woman who has joined the military in disguise.  They’re going to have to work together to navigate the dangerous cultural and political tangle of the Ottoman capital of Istanbul!”  ~Allie
This is the second of my reviews for WWEnd’s Month of YAGenre fiction. Behemoth picks up right where Leviathan left off, so it's absolutely necessary to read the series in order. Thus far, I have been happy with the way each novel concludes its individual arc, while still continuing the overarching story of the series.
On a side note, Westerfeld takes some slightly more subtle liberties with established history in Behemoth. I could see some readers being concerned that the trilogy’s alternate history may obscure actual history for younger readers.  I don’t think this will be a problem, however, as Westerfeld helpfully includes an afterword in each novel that explicitly states which parts of his story are fact and which fiction.
My Thoughts :
Behemoth continues the adventure of Leviathan, and it is brought to life by many more of Keith Thompson’s amazing illustrations. While the story felt as exciting and action-packed as in Leviathan, it moves in a slightly different direction. Rather than traipsing around Europe in an organic airship, this installment focuses primarily on the situation in Istanbul, where Deryn and Alek spend a lot of time undercover. I enjoyed reading about the multicultural city of Istanbul, and the mixture of Clanker and Darwinist influences in their society. While much of the Ottoman technology could be considered Clanker, their machines tend to emulate animals or mythological beings from many cultures.  Westerfeld’s Istanbul expands his vision of this world, and the city has plenty of mystery and conflict to maintain the tension and excitement of the story.  
Deryn and Alek are still incredibly active and resourceful protagonists, and they continue to find themselves in very dangerous and interesting situations.  However, I was a little less than thrilled with the way their inevitable romantic subplot is handled.  There’s very little build-up, so it ended up feeling a little tacked on to the central story.  Though Deryn’s hidden gender mixed things up a bit, it still leaned a little too heavily on common young adult romance plot devices for my taste.  While it wasn’t a major focus in Behemoth, I feel fairly certain that the romance angle will continue into the third book, where I hope it will be more smoothly integrated and thoroughly developed.
In addition to Deryn and Alek, there are many notable minor characters.  Two repeating characters—Alek’s fencing master, Count Volger, and the Darwinist scientist, Dr. Barlow—get a bit more development in this installment.  They are the schemers on Alek’s and Deryn’s sides, respectively, and I enjoyed learning more about their plans. A new addition to the cast is the mysterious creature Dr. Barlow carried through Leviathan.  The critter is certainly adorable, but I’m not altogether fond of its role in the narrative thus far.   Another notable new addition is the American reporter, Eddie Malone. I was glad Westerfeld did not go the easy adventure-story route and portray him as a simple annoyance to Deryn and Alek.  These and other characters are beginning to widen the world that Leviathan introduced. 
The title of the novel, Behemoth, once again has several meanings.  Leviathan was a reference to gigantic whale-like airbeast, but I believe it was also a reference to Thomas Hobbes’ work of the same name.  The Behemoth is the companion beast to the Darwinist warship Churchill held back from the Ottomans, and it is also the name of another work by Hobbes.  In Leviathan, Hobbes described an ideal government, and in Behemoth, he described the causes and effects of revolution. Hobbes believed that no good could come from rebellion, but Alek and Deryn’s adventures don’t altogether support that final conclusion. I think the story of Behemoth provides an opportunity to discuss what circumstances, if any, justify carrying out a violent revolution.
My Rating : 4/5
Behemoth lives up to the standard set by Leviathan.  Alek and Deryn’s adventures are more stationary, and more politically based, but no less exciting.  Behemoth introduces several new and interesting characters, and shows the unique culture of fictional Istanbul.  I did not think the typical YA romance was integrated particularly well into the story, though I hope the romantic subplot will be developed more deftly in the third novel.  Like its predecessor, Behemoth brings up some interesting topics for discussion, and it contains more depth than just the surface adventure story.  Behemoth answers many of the questions left from Leviathan, but, of course, the final conclusion of the story is yet to come, in the final volume, Goliath! 

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