RogerBW's Blog

Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld 20 September 2018

2009 young adult steampunk SF, first of a trilogy. In an alternate 1914, the German Clanker powers build massive legged war machines, while the English Darwinists engineer creatures to serve their purposes. But none of that stops the Archduke Franz Ferdinand from being assassinated.

The young adult credentials are prominent: nobody ever swears, and both of the protagonists are young and relatively ignorant of the world and of adult life. (Indeed, I'd call this more a children's book than a YA one, in spite of a sudden moment of ladyfeelings near the end.) One is Aleksandar [sic], the son of Franz Ferdinand (in this history he's the only one), fleeing from Austria into Switzerland with a small retinue; the other is Deryn Sharpe, a common-as-muck English airman who's actually a girl in disguise. When the living war-airship Leviathan crashes near the castle where Alek is hiding, they'll have to get their respective sides to work together, assuming they can even trust each other.

It's more fun than Bennis' The Guns Above, but less gritty; perhaps because of the YA audience there's a lot less injury and suffering than in that other book, and large chunks of the technology are clearly elided in order to make the story work. (If Charles Darwin worked out how to manipulate DNA and thus pushed history profoundly off course, why is there still a Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty, doing a specific thing he did in real-1914? Because it's fun.)

I'm really not convinced by the "bitter almond" smell of hydrogen – yes, perhaps they add something to it to make it detectable, but someone ought perhaps to mention that, especially when it's being produced by biological processes – and nor do I believe that hydrogen airships will go up in flames at the slightest spark. (Well, if you paint the skin with thermite, perhaps, but nobody would do that.) I fear Westerfeld has spent too much time considering the Hindenburg, and not enough on the reports of historical aviators who took on zeppelins. But hey, fléchette bats! Strafing hawks with anti-aircraft nets! Swarms of bees that forage, then make honey to be metabolised into hydrogen! The legged war machines come off a distinct second best in the sense-of-wonder stakes, even if nobody really worries about issues of high profile or power to weight ratios, and there are legged battleships that can cross unprepared ground at speed…

It's certainly not the wonder that The Risen Empire was, in other words, but it's enjoyable and I'll read more of the trilogy. Followed by Behemoth.

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Series: Leviathan | Next in series: Behemoth

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