Leviathan (2009), by Scott Westerfeld

In honour of my daughter’s 13th birthday today, I thought I should post a review of a book she loves. Then I read through my list and realized that I haven’t reviewed most of the books both she and I have read. Now I will have to go back and read them again to do them justice. In fact, I intend to reread Westerfeld’s “th” series—Leviathan, Behemoth, and Goliath—in order to present a more meaningful analysis of this series, which does so much for the steampunk sub-genre as well as presenting a brilliant alternative historical account of World War One. I know from talking to students (and Westerfeld himself) that the series is a fabulous introduction for students interested in world history. I firmly believe in the power of books not only to entertain and amaze, but also to entice young readers to question the world around them in important ways. Westerfeld’s text—all of them—do this admirably.

Leviathan

Westerfeld’s combination of steampunk and biological fantasy functions to create an interesting alternative history of World War I.  From the adult perspective, it will certainly engage young readers in European history; from a less pragmatic perspective it is one of the more gripping books for older child readers that I have encountered in a while.  It takes the archaic setting of Philip Reeve’s Larklight and increases the stakes.  Where Larklight is a romp, Leviathan—and Behemoth and Goliath that follow—concern life and death struggles; serious dilemmas concerning faithfulness, duty, friendship, and honour; questions of individual rights in the face of societal and national needs; and a perspicacious loris…
In terms of plot, Westerfeld pits the Darwinists (Britain and her allies) against the steampunk Clankers (Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire).  The protagonists are placed in a complicated relationship, Alek being the son of the murdered Archduke Ferdinand and Deryl being a commoner in the British Air Force: a girl, masquerading as a boy to fulfill her dream of flying in one of the Darwinist creations: the biological ecosystem that is the airship Leviathan.  In Leviathan, we meet the protagonists in their separate lives; as they move towards one another and we learn their personalities, Europe moves towards war and we learn the nuances of Westerfeld’s alternate historical setting.

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