Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
|Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: Steampunk heads to teenagers with this rather spiffing new series. Pacy and with great worldbuilding, a more satisfying end would give it five stars.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 448||Date: October 2009|
|Publisher: Simon & Schuster|
You have to hand it to Scott Westerfeld. He writes a great page-turner and he has an enviable eye for a good angle on contemporary interests. In Leviathan, he's bringing steampunk to junior readers. If you're not a trainspotterish fan of the maze of sci-fi and fantasy sub-genres, you may not know what steampunk is, let alone whether or not you or your children will like it. Basically, steampunk fiction is set in a world in which steam is still the main source of power. Often, the world is an alternate history past, but it can be the future too. Westerfeld's chosen an alternate history for Leviathan - we're in 1914, the Archduke Ferdinand has just been assassinated and Europe is on the brink of WWI.
In this world, the Clanker Powers (Germany) use machines we would just about recognise today - except that lots of them have legs. The Darwinists (Britain) use DNA-fabricated animals. So the war is recast as mechanics against biotech. We have two central characters - Aleksander, son of the murdered archduke and on the run from his own Clanker people, and Deryn, a girl who disguised as boy to join the British Air Service so she could work with beasties and who's crash landed where she shouldn't. From completely different backgrounds, they're forced to fight together against a surprisingly common enemy.
The worldbuilding is top notch, with spectacular machinery and fabulous Darwinist fabrications - all brought to life with wonderful Keith Thompson illustrations. The writing is as you'd expect from this very successful writer - tight and pacy and efficient with no self-indulgence whatsoever. It's sprinkled with some vivid invented argot, which not only adds to the worldbuilding, but also acts as a rather super tactic for Not Really Swearing in a children's book. I love that: cheeky but stylish. Alek and Deryn are great characters with sufficient conflict to maintain interest and the supporting cast is full of entertaining cameos. Junior fantasy fans are going to love this book.
However, Leviathan doesn't quite end with a cliffhanger, but it does leave far too many questions unanswered for my liking, and I'm afraid it gives me a creeping sense of the mercenary. I am highly sensitive to this in books for children - perhaps too much so - but I'm also of the firm belief that if what you write is good enough and has sufficiently well-chosen ingredients, then children will want book number two. You don't need to manipulate them into wanting it. In terms of hitting the zeitgeist and of producing a book junior fantasy fans are going to enjoy, Leviathan is a five star book. I'm sufficiently miffed about the ending to deduct one little yellow gleamer though, I'm afraid.
Amazon.com's page has it down as a young adult book, but keen readers in the late years of primary and early years of secondary schools will approach it with ease and I didn't notice any content that would make nervous parents afeart. My (UK) press sheet is saying 10+. Westerfeld has a pacy style accessible to all ages from eight to eighty, so I'm heartily recommending Leviathan to anyone who likes a good bit of steampunk - and, bah, doesn't mind waiting for the next in the series - whatever their age.
My thanks to the nice people at Simon & Schuster for sending the book.
If they like the sound of Leviathan, there are a good selection of children's books that circle around steampunk and alternate histories. Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series is the obvious candidate, but there's also the superb and chilling Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, the mob in Victorian Ireland in Ancient Appetites by Oisin McGann, and, a bit more loosely, some Gothic thrills in Mariah Mundi by G P Taylor.
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