By Scott Westerfeld
Simon Pulse, 2009
In a steampunk alternate WWI timeline, Prince Aleksander of Austria is in hiding from his own people after his parents’ assassination, running across Europe in an armored, walking war machine with a tiny band of loyalists. Deryn Sharp is hiding her age and gender so she can serve aboard the Leviathan, a genetically engineered hydrogen-breathing whale, one of the best of the British Airforce’s living, lighter-than-air crafts. Hiccups in both their plans force Alek and Deryn, their people, and their technology to work together to survive.
The children’s book styling of much of Leviathan combined with the world war scope of the action gives the story a dispassionate distance at times. The events are much bigger than Alek and Deryn, whose critical contributions often feel unnoticed and haphazard. Most of the crew of the Leviathan is fairly faceless, and the characters respond emotionally to some instances of violence while taking full-scale battles in stride with the caprice of a Star Trek crew.
For the most part, the juxtaposition of beautiful illustrations with YA-level violence, coming-of-age angst, and political intrigue works in the same way the steampunk elements do, by combining past with present and future, nostalgia with speculation and depth. Deryn is another of the cool, unapologetic, thoroughly uninsulting female heroes Westerfeld does so well, and Alek’s transition from a heavily sheltered kid from a powerful and loving family, to an orphaned political pawn, to a heroic decision maker in his own right makes it impossible for me to choose between them which perspective I look forward to more.
It takes more than half the book for the two of them to end up in the same place at the same time, but once they do, the intimacy of character drama that was missing from much of the book, particularly on the Leviathan side of things, does arrive. I can’t wait to read on in the series from here.