Prince Aleksandar Ferdinand is fleeing his homeland following the assassination of his parents. Fleeing, that is, in a war machine that walks on two legs... and even runs, when it needs to. That's Clanker technology for you.
In England, Deryn Sharp has disguised herself as a boy to enter the British Air Service. The Darwinist British Air Service, that is. Before long, she's flying over Europe on the Leviathan - a fabricated airship with the body of a whale.
A boy and a girl. A Clanker and a Darwinist. Both with secrets, and about to collide in a way that might just change history...
Steampunk. It's a world of possibility; a genre that for many of us still holds the irrestible mystique of the unknown. It's a little bit sci-fi, a little bit fantasy, and a whole lot of new. In the hands of Scott Westerfeld, it's also mindblowing.
In Leviathan, we get two alternate worlds for the price of one. First up, there's the world of the Clankers, masters of machinery more advanced than anything found in our World War I. Second, there's the world of the Darwinists, masters of DNA whose technology is based in creating specialist animal species to suit their needs. And as a world-builder, Westerfeld reaches new heights in Leviathan, notably aided by Keith Thompson's beautiful illustrations. All those tantalising little details of the strange and unknown from his imagination are seamlessly interwoven with elements of our own history that seem almost as if they always belonged there. Readers will soon become swept up in the story and lose track of the boundary between fact and fiction, but it won't matter in the slightest. This version's better.
There's always something fascinating about a character concealing their true gender, and Westerfeld's Deryn Sharp is no exception. Under the assumed identity Dylan, our heroine (hero?) is accepted into the British air service on her merits - and enjoys a taste of what it's like to be a boy in her world. Which mostly seems to mean fighting, swearing and getting to spend time risking her life on fantastic Darwinist creations like the Leviathan of the title. All of which she'd no doubt describe as 'barking' good fun, and I'd have to agree with her there. She's beguiling and plucky, and she takes me back to those childhood days before girls and boys started to seem like two entirely different species. I think Scott Westerfeld may have cracked that elusive quality that makes a book appeal to male and female readers alike, and that's no mean feat.
That said, Leviathan definitely reads 'younger' than the other Scott Westerfeld books on my shelf. In the UK it's marketed for ages ten and up, and I think that's about right. The focus is strongly on the world-building and adventure, and although the protagonists are teenagers I didn't feel that character development was given as much attention as I'd usually expect in a YA novel. Sure, there was a whisper of potential romance, and I'll be interested to see how that develops throughout the series - but actually I found it refreshing to just be swept up in the breathtaking action and awe-inspiring world of Leviathan.
Leviathan isn't the first steampunk novel I've read, but it is the first steampunk novel I've truly connected with. It's accessible and immersive, and as an alternate history its relationship to our own is wholly fascinating. Steampunk fans won't want to miss it, and those new to the genre will find it the perfect introduction. I think this one might just become a classic.
Out: now, in the UK and US
Sincere thanks to Simon and Schuster UK for providing me with a copy for review.