My one-sentence review might be: if you liked Leviathan, then you’ll like Behemoth. It’s a worthy sequel that notably doesn’t suffer from the dreaded “middle book syndrome” of a trilogy. Once again Scott Westerfeld plays fast and loose with the events leading up to World War I, and it pays off with an intense story in which our two protagonists have to decide what to prioritize: their duties, or their friendship. It’s the same kind of YA story you see in so many other books, but instead of being set in the present day at a high school or a summer camp, we get it smack dab in the middle of an alternative steam/bio-punk Europe. Yes, please!
Deryn Sharp is back and once more nervously concealing her gender while being brilliant. This time around, she gets to help Alek with a revolution! Sort of. Leviathan ends up in Istanbul. Though ostensibly neutral, the Ottoman Empire is a hair’s breadth away from joining the Clanker side. With war officially declared, Deryn and Alek suddenly find themselves on opposite sides of a strange political situation. Alek and some of his men—sans Volger—escape the airship into the cosmopolitan Constantinople, but don’t worry: he and Deryn soon reunite, and there is a fun not-so-love-triangle.
I noted this in my review of Leviathan, but I had forgotten it (along with most of that book) and noticed it afresh in Behemoth: I love how Alek is not the greatest. By this I mean that he makes a lot of mistakes, and he often suggests courses of action that are not the best or lead to outright failure. It’s all too tempting for an author to make their protagonist awesome, if only because having a protagonist who keeps losing can often make a story fairly depressing and even boring. He is a natural-born leader, in the sense that he has a way with people and can get them to follow him on these schemes—he’s just not very good at strategy yet, because he is young and inexperienced.
Deryn is slightly more awesome, but she faces her share of setbacks too. Volger tries to manipulate her expertly—that doesn’t really go anywhere, unfortunately, and I’ll be interested to see if that gets revisited in book 3. I assume at some point her secret has to come out. In Behemoth we also get to see her with her first command (long story), and although she achieves her objective, it does not go … swimmingly (pun intended, I’ll go now). Although Deryn meets with a lot of success, Westerfeld deals her enough drama to keep the story interesting.
Above all else, we get the idea that Alek and Deryn are at their best when they are together. There is some romantic tension, of course, and a great deal of Deryn’s acknowledgement of blossoming (pesky) feelings for Alek. I love their little heart-to-heart when Alek thinks someone else has a crush on Deryn. It’s the kind of dramatic irony normally reserved for a Shakespeare comedy, and Westerfeld pulls it off brilliantly.
Once again Westerfeld puts Alek and Deryn in the thick of things without making it seem too unrealistic given their age and status. There is a good mixture of action scenes and more slower-paced, suspenseful moments. The conflict between what Deryn and Alek know is right and what they are expected to do for their countries or loyalties becomes even sharper. Istanbul is always an interesting and diverse setting, and that is no exception here in Behemoth. It is oversimplifying things to say that Deryn’s loyalty to Britain and its Air Service is “tested like never before”, to borrow a cliché, but she certainly does things that walk a fine line. I guess it helps that, ultimately, she does end up helping Leviathan, even if it is in very unorthodox ways.
Ultimately this is just another example of an excellent YA book from Scott Westerfeld. It’s fun and inventive and smart, with complicated main characters who can be both inspiring and insipid in turns. This is YA that entertains but also asks you to think, and it does so while elegantly fusing real history with unreal, imaginative inventions and ideas.