A Turn for Steam

I feel bad for this book.  Not the story or anything like that, but the physical book.  Somehow or other, my copy of Leviathan by Scott Westerfield had its cover put on upside down.  It’s an error I’ve never seen before, but it doesn’t actually affect anything relevant.  I just get confused momentarily most times I pick the thing up and go to read.

Leviathan is the first book in the best-selling young adult steampunk trilogy that shows an alternate World War I.  Here, our two factions are mostly demarcated by the type of technology they employ.  The Central Powers are better known as the Clankers for the preference of machines and the noises resulting.  The Allies are the Darwinists, who have learned how to manipulate genetics and breed entire ecosystems to suit their needs.  And much of our book takes place in the air, on the English ship Leviathan.

Clanker zeppelins are essentially the same as they were in our world, but the Darwinist answer to that are airships.  The Leviathan in particular is mostly a whale, but with a great deal of other species thrown in.  The gondola hangs from its belly, and within its body lives the ecosystem that keeps it airborne, from bees, to sniffer dogs (that find hydrogen leaks) to bats that poop spikes in attacks, message lizards, glow worms, and so many more.  From a more modern standpoint, the Darwinist method is much greener and more sustainable in the long run, though considering the issues on stem cell research, I don’t see anyone trying to bring this science to life anytime soon.

We have two main characters.  The first, Deryn Sharp, follows in a long line of heroines who disguise themselves as boys in order to pursue their dreams.  Of course, the unwritten rule for such cross-dressing is that the girl must be the absolute best, not only to assay any doubt of her masculinity, but to prove that she didn’t get her place by chance, that she earned it above and beyond all the boys.  Sadly, this is still necessary in our real world, though without the guaranteed acceptance in the end.  Not that Deryn (or Dylan, as she’s known) is revealed at the end of this book.

Our other main character is Aleksander, a young Hapsburg prince.  He is the son of Franz Ferdinand and his entire world has turned into a waking nightmare with the sudden deaths of his parents.  His identity is now his most valuable possession, but he must survive in order to use it.  Fortunately, his father planned ahead.  Unfortunately, war has a way of wrecking even the most carefully laid plans…

A nice touch is the map of Europe inside.  It is the one thing about this book that makes me wish I had a hardcover, because I suspect it might be full color there.  It is not a very useful map in the conventional sense: very few cities are marked, and you don’t get a good sense for how much terrain is covered.  But it is a beautifully crafted map in which every region is depicted as either a Darwinist creation or gears and machinery.  There are also illustrations throughout the book which allow readers to have a better grasp of the elements being described.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d be hard pressed to truly imagine the Leviathan or any of its creatures otherwise.

Leviathan may seem simple because it’s not written for adults only, but you can’t really apply the term to any book that looks at the convoluted politics which turned the assassination of a single man into a war throughout the world.  Not only that, but we have the concept of Darwinist creations which is not at all common.  I won’t say it’s unique because I have read some similar ideas before.  “Seven Years From Home” by Naomi Novik (from the Warriors anthology I read) uses a similar idea, but at a much higher tech level, allowing for what is essentially forced evolution

You could even say there’s some similarity in the Dragonriders of Pern series.  I’m not simply talking about the dragons themselves, which were bioengineered from fire lizards to be the great beasts we know and love.  Kit Ping Yung was trained by the Eridani, who would introduce new species in groups of three.  Not only did she create the dragons, but she enhanced the fire lizards as well.  Her daughter completed the triad with the watch-whers.

As you can guess, next up is Behemoth and then Goliath.  After that, who knows.  Maybe back to new books.

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