YA Friday: Leviathan by (Mr.) Scott Westerfield

Friday, March 25, 2011

Title: Leviathan
Author: Mr. Scott Westerfield
Genre: Steampunk*, YA
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2009
Source: Public library

*Steampunk: Steampunk is a sub-gnre of science fiction, alternate history, and speculative fiction that came into prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s. Specifically, steampunk involves an era or world where steam power is still widely used - usually the 19th century and often Victorian era Britain - that incorporates prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy. (Thanks, Wikipedia)

Leviathan contrasts two different groups of technology - the Clankers, who use elaborate machines, and the Darwinists, who genetically engineer animals (called fabs, short for fabrications) for all kinds of different uses, including the Leviathan, a giant whale that is also an airship and a whole ecosystem of species, including glow worms for light, six-legged dog-like creatures who sniff the creature's skin for hydrogen leaks, and flechette bats, which eat darts and then poop them out on attackers with a red light as a signal. World War I (a slightly different version of World War I) breaks out, pitting the German and Austro-Hungarian Clankers against the British Darwinists. Caught in the middle of it all are Prince Aleksander, the son of the Duke but unable to inherit the Austro-Hungarian throne due to his mother's common blood, and Deryn, a witty Scottish pilot who is disguising herself as a boy to serve on the Leviathan.

This book was very different from anything I have ever read. I had hardly heard of steampunk, and when I did read the definition, I thought it sounded so nerdy. Forgetting, of course, that I am the queen of all nerds. And once I got started, I absolutely loved the steampunk aspect of the novel, particularly the Darwinist creatures. Ok, fabricating a whale that floats through the sky as a hydrogen blimp (the hydrogen is produced by bacteria that excrete hydrogen in the whale's gut) is completely improbable. But it's also really cool. My favorite part of the machine/animal was the signaling tissue supplied by cuttlefish nervous tissue (something neuroscientists often use to study nerve conduction) -
He pointed at the signal patch on the airship's membrane. It was made of cuttlefish skiin, the master engineer had explained, connected by fabricated nervous tissue to receptors down on the bridge.
I don't think I would have enjoyed the machines as much had the book not contained the exceptional illustrations by Keith Thompson. I'm not mechanically minded at all, so seeing pictures made the machines come alive in a way that I probably couldn't have imagined myself.
I also enjoyed the characters. Deryn is about as hard-core as can be. This girl is thrown into all kinds of difficult situations, and her finesse as a pilot and her solid common sense save her (and often others) every time. I also enjoyed the contrast between Deryn and Alek - Deryn is rough around the edges, knowledgeable, a survivor, but she is a girl, usually stereotyped as weaker than boys. However, Alek is a slightly pampered, sensitive prince who doesn't know how to deal with the real world. Don't get me wrong - I loved Alek. But it was interesting to read a story where the girl was so much more competent than the boy, not because the boy was a jerk or a bad person, but just because he was ill-equipped to deal with life at war. I also greatly enjoyed Dr. Nora Barlow - she is so fussy and all-knowing, and I found myself shaking the book at her because despite her annoying personality, she was always right. That kind of emotional reaction to a character usually shows a well-developed character.

I was a bit surprised by the writing. I have heard a lot of hype for Scott Westerfield's books, and I was expecting to be blown away. However, the writing was a little juvenile for me. I felt like the book was aimed toward the much younger side of YA - I would have enjoyed smarter, more evocative writing. I have read many YA books that, despite being marketed to a younger audience, had powerful and beautiful sentences (Delirium by Lauren Oliver is what immediately comes to mind). Don't get me wrong - there was nothing wrong with the writing - I was just expecting more with all the excitement I've heard about Mr. Westerfield's book.

Overall, this was a highly enjoyable book. The machines and fabricated animals were original, and it was fascinating to be swept up to Alek and Deryn's world. The characters were fun to read about. The writing underwhelmed me a bit, but was fine. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to explore a strange but fun new genre. Also, be aware that the story is aimed to younger audiences (but can still be enjoyable for those who are "a little less Y and a little more A").

Readability - Easy read
Plot - 4
Characters - 4
Writing - 3
Personal Response - 3.5
Overall: 3.5


  1. Having read all of Westerfeld's YA novels, I can confirm that this one was written to a slightly younger audience. His writing is slightly more grown up in the other books, but remains essentially the same. He's a very straightforward sort of writer and that's what I really like about him - he writes the way I think, which makes him very easy to read.

    I'm glad you like this one!

  2. I definitely agree that this book seemed aimed toward the younger side but I still really enjoyed it, especially the illustrations. Will you be reading Behemoth anytime soon?

  3. Excellent review! I have LEVIATHAN on my shelf just waiting to be open but... my TBR list is overwhelming! I'm glad you liked it, even though I'm hoping I'll like it a little more :)

    I like your blog name, by the way. Very straight-forward.

    New follower!

  4. I LOVED Deryn and the world that Westerfeld created! I listened to this one and Behemoth and, which I think disguised the level of the writing. The narrator was phenomenal. Though I've been told I missed the illustrations, so I have to find a hard copy at some point!

  5. I've only read the two books out in this series and the Uglies series by SW, and I loved them both. I agree this is for younger YAs so I hope that doesn't put you off reading any of his other books, they're great :-) One of the things I love the best about SW's books are his awesome female characters, no insipid girls to be found! And I agree about the illustrations too, they really made the book for me. I can't wait to read the final instalment!

  6. @Amanda - He is definitely very straightforward - nothing confusing or vague in his writing. I can foresee myself reading Leviathan to my sons in the future (as of yet they are nonexistent... haha)

    @Bookworm - I'm planning on reading Behemoth once Goliath comes out. I have this goal to only read trilogies once all the books are out, but I usually can't keep to it. Haha.

    @The Story Queen - It is definitely a fun read, I hope you'll like it as well! Thanks for the follow and the compliment. I really like your blog name as well. :)

    @Erin - Oh my goodness you must see the illustrations. They are what really made the book come alive!

    @Mummazappa - I just finished Uglies, and now that I realized these are slightly younger books I think I enjoyed it much more. And I definitely agree about the female characters. I am looking forward to Goliath coming out - I'm not going to read Behemoth til it does, so I won't be kept waiting.


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