Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld

Title: Leviathan
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 448 pages
Genre: YA steampunk
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.5 stars

I hoped for more out of this book.

I like the story. It’s an interesting premise and a great use of steampunk themes to build an alternate universe. Leviathan re-envisions the start of World War I as a conflict between two pathways of technological development. The Darwinists, in England, France, and Russia, have gone into biodevelopment, discovering things like DNA coding a bit ahead of time, and using that knowledge to create fantastical new creatures. Airships made out of floating air-whales with other creatures grafted on, balloons out of jellyfish/blowfish type things, lizards who can memorise and deliver messages, wolf-dog-tiger hybrids for security or searching. The Clankers, in Germany/the Holy Roman Empire (still hanging on, apparently) and most of Eastern Europe, have chosen traditional mechanical technology, viewing Darwinist creations as hellish abominations.

The trouble is that, well… there sort of just wasn’t enough there. I know it’s a YA book, but that’s really no excuse. Plenty of authors manage to write YA novels and still use sophisticated storytelling devices. The later Harry Potter books are probably the most famous example, but the honest-to-goodness best example is probably Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Westerfeld’s style is a bit slapdash for my preferences. The vocabulary is basic, the sentence structure largely unvaried, the characterisation fairly flat. This disappointed me, and it’s not just because I’m an adult reading a YA book — it would have disappointed me just as much at age 11. You don’t have to write simply to tell a story on a level that young people will understand. (Quite the opposite, I’ve always thought — half the point of reading is to stretch your brainpan out a bit, to introduce new things rather than just dumping in what it’s already familiar with, and that goes for the language itself as much as for the story).

I found myself wishing that the book either had a lot more illustrations — I think it would’ve worked brilliantly as a graphic novel — or a lot fewer, with a lot more verbal description. It seemed in many places as if the illustrations were serving as a crutch for insufficient description in the text. This is particularly true of the Darwinist creations, which I found a little confusing to follow. I can tell there are good ideas there, that the dynamics of how these things operate has been thought out — I just sometimes had trouble following along with exactly what those dynamics were. It became clearer with illustration, but still not perfectly so.

I still haven’t said anything about the actual plot yet, have I? Prince Aleksandr, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is fleeing after his parents’ assassination (the event that, y’know, starts World War I). His path improbably collides with that of Deryn, a British common girl with aspirations of aviation, who has disguised herself as a boy in order to join the crew of one of the dirigible-creatures. And… that’s pretty much the plot. It doesn’t really get to going much of anywhere in this first book. We meet the characters, we learn about the world, the war starts, there are adventures on the ground and in the air. That’s not to say nothing happens. Quite a bit happens, in your typical adventure-story sort of way. But it’s all rather thin and entirely unfinished — this is clearly the first book in a series, and it doesn’t wrap up on its own in any significant way.

So, this was a sort of interesting read, but not a really gripping one. I imagine I’ll get the next book the series eventually, but I’m in no rush. And when it comes to YA steampunk, I’ll be anticipating Gail Carriger’s new series a lot more.

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