Thursday, August 3, 2017

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld

Today I'm looking at the novel Leviathan, the first in a trilogy by Scott Westerfeld that straddles the border between the related genres of steampunk and dieselpunk, which makes sense since it is set during an alternate history First World War. In Westerfeld's universe, technology has taken two alternate routes from our historical ''baseline''. Britain, France, and Russia have become ''Darwinist'' powers, utilizing genetic and biological engineering to create animals to take the place of machines. From draft animals dozens of times stronger than a horse to messenger lizards capable of relaying vocal messages perfectly to huge airships that are part whale, part jellyfish, and part hydrogen-exuding bacteria, the Darwinists have countless varieties of animals available to replace machinery.

Germany and Austria-Hungary, as well as the Ottoman Empire, have gone a more traditional route with various steam and internal-combustion powered vehicles and machines to match the Darwinist forces. The biggest change from regular technology though is the immense walkers that that the ''Clankers'' have constructed. These range in size from small, unarmed personal walkers, to massive land dreadnoughts capable of leveling entire cities. With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Great Powers are drawn into a conflict that promises to engulf all of Europe.

The book folows two main characters, Deryn Sharp and Prince Aleksander of Austria. Deryn is a Scottish girl who wishes to join the British Air Service and disguises herself as a boy to enroll as a midshipman. And I have to be honest, even though this book came out back in 2009, Deryn feels incredibly cliched as a character to me. Based on the amount of steampunk that I've read there's apparently some law that you have to include a spunky female scientist/engineer/airship pilot/etc. within your steampunk story and she shocks everybody with how spunky and unlike a proper lady she is. What with the doing science. Or piloting airships. Or blowing things up. I do like Eliza blowing things up. ANYWAY, Deryn disguising herself as a boy is really the only thing that distinguishes her from half a dozen other characters I could name who fit the same mold. So while I like spunky female characters, the apparent requirement that every steampunk story have them is starting to feel hackneyed.

Prince Aleksander by comparison is slightly more interesting as a character. Like Archduke Franz Ferdinand's actual, historical children, Aleksander is barred from inheriting the throne of Austria Hungary. In this reality, however, Franz Ferdinand managed to get a papal bull issued legitimizing Aleksander and placing him in line for the succession. When Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie are assassinated (in this case by German agents to provide a causus belli for Austria to invade Serbia) Aleksander poses a threat to the rest of the Hapsburgs. Soon Aleksander, with the help of two of his teachers and a walker, is on the run from the forces of not only Germany, but Austria as well.

Deryn aside, I had some other issues with this book which made me feel like it couldn't have been as good as it could have been. First and foremost, I feel like this book is just setting the stage for the later books and conflicts rather than being just a story in its own right. If this was a long-running series such as Honor Harrington or The Dresden Files, I wouldn't have as much of an issue because it means we're getting an introduction before getting into a complex storyline. In this case, the series is only three books long so I feel like the first book should have established the arc of the story and laid some sort of expectation for what's at stake. When I finished this book I was left rather unsure what exactly was at stake beyond Alek's life and inheritance, and Deryn secretly being a girl. There's something going on with the mission to the Ottoman Empire, but we've been given only the broadest outlines.

Overall I feel like this book just doesn't live up to its potential. There are important questions that remain unanswered and I'm not sure where the series plans to go or even have an inkling of what might happen. Deryn as a character isn't terribly original, and since she's half the focus it weakens half the story. Maybe the other two books are better, but this first one feels inadequate.

- Kalpar

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