World War I is not the sexier World War. The technology isn’t advanced; it didn’t end with a noisy double atomic bang; and it lacks the grandiose operatic tragedy of the Holocaust to offer a thematic background. Indeed, the political quagmire of nationalism and militarism that precipitated and fuelled the Great War might be interesting to historians, but to bored schoolkids, it just prompted us to wonder what we had done so wrong to deserve this. Wouldn’t World War I be cooler if it had genetically-engineered beasts on one side and steampunk walking machines on the other?
Scott Westerfeld covers just those bases in Leviathan. In this alternate history, Charles Darwin discovers DNA, and the field of genetics makes amazing leaps forward. Britain now depends on fabricated creatures for some of the simplest things—electricity, for example, is seen as dreadfully unreliable. Meanwhile, in Austria–Hungary and Germany, the Clankers prefer the reassuring sound of pistons and smell of oil. In lieu of tractor-tread tanks, they produce bipedal, quadripedal, octopedal walkers and zippy planes. Oh, and zeppelins. Because always zeppelins. (TVTropes)
Even in this much-altered Europe, the political situation remains tense. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, ignites war just as it did in our history. There are some differences in how the assassination happens, and they only have a single child to survive them. This child, Aleksander, is one of the two protagonists. After being led by the nose by two of the Archduke’s most loyal (but grumpy) officers, Alek starts acquiring a mind of his own.
I appreciate how much Alek is not a Mary Sue. He has a sound mind for tactics and proves talented at a walker. But he can’t suddenly persuade men to join the cause. He tends to screw up in all the ways an inexperienced adolescent boy would. Mostly he’s just trying to process the fact that his parents are gone—as in dead gone—and might have been killed by the rest of his family, who hated his mother, and if they weren’t, the family certainly looked the other way. Oh, and now that family wants to capture him, if not to kill him than to sequester him away somewhere he can’t cause any trouble.
Life is rough sometimes, you know?
So Alek and his trusty companions, Volger and Klopp, manage to slip into Switzerland, where Alek’s late father managed to provision a rundown castle in the Alps (like you do). But with the Leviathan’s inconvenient crash-landing nearby, Alek is forced to work with the Darwinists, especially when the Germans start breathing down everyone’s necks.
The conflict between Alek and Volger that precedes him sneaking out to help the Leviathan crew is great. Once again, Alek is making a potential stupid decision that is still probably the right one—he is acting like a leader, taking counsel and then ignoring it if it goes against his gut. But, of course, he also has to live with the consequences. If it weren’t for some quick thinking later in the book, he could very easily have gotten everyone killed.
Meanwhile, Deryn is just busy trying to avoid anyone discovering she’s a girl, especially that pesky Dr. Barlow. Unlike Alek, I found her skills verging a little too much towards the Mary Sue. However, it’s important to note that she isn’t technically a Mary Sue because, despite being a protagonist, she is not overly important to the plot. The captain doesn’t suddenly put her in charge after he recognizes her natural ability to command scores of men. Dr. Barlow overrules Deryn and orders her about just like she might any other middie. So in that sense, Deryn is much like Alek.
And that, of course, is the power of Leviathan’s characterization. Westerfeld creates these two … dare I say, starcrossed? … characters. One Darwinist. One Clanker. Both with something to hide. Both having lost a great deal so young. Both full of hope and dreams and ambitions—ambitions, I should say, that are suspiciously about learning and growing one’s mind. It’s like Westerfeld wants kids to like learning or something. Terrible propaganda!
Oddly enough, this delivery of so much one wants in a YA novel is probably why I liked but did not love Leviathan. It’s just too blandly YA. By fulfilling so many of the tropes—admittedly in creative, fun, well-executed ways—it ensures it will entertain, perhaps even dazzle. But it lacks the opinionated, thought-provoking stare that Uglies and its sequels turn on you. Whereas those books make you uncomfortable, challenge you to check your pre-conceptions at the door, these ones have a lot more in common with a blockbuster like Jurassic Park: alternate history, big beasties, lots of stuff go boom.
To my shame, it has been five years since I read the Uglies trilogy, and I am only now getting around to reading anything else by Westerfeld. He’s a prolific and popular writer, so I’ve quite the backlog to get through now. And I’m pleased, honestly, that he can produce something quite different from Uglies; it bodes well for the rest of his catalogue if each novel or series has its own unique voice to it.
I also genuinely believe that a lot of people will fall in love with Leviathan, with its world, and with its characters. As I implied at the beginning of my review, this is the perfect novel for a kid who is interested in history but not really interested in the geopolitics behind World War I. Westerfeld has done a masterful job creating an alternative early twentieth-century Europe here. Likewise, both protagonists are fun and exciting. Alek is a fallible young boy only barely holding grief in check. Deryn is a fierce and capable young woman trying to deal with the patriarchal nature of her world even as she struggles simply to do what she loves—fly. There’s a lot in here to speak to the reader, if you open your mind and listen.
By no means perfect—and, in fact, hindered in my view by a regrettable adherence to a kind of rote embrace of YA tropes—Leviathan is still stunning. I totally see why it got (and continues to get) all the hype, even though I’m not personally ready to jump on that bandwagon.