A week after visiting three bookstores to score a copy of Larbalestier’s Liar on its release day, I was preparing a multi-book store itinerary to buy her husband’s new novel, Leviathan on its first day of sale. I’ve been awaiting this book since at least June of 2006, when Westerfeld first started mentioning an in-progress “airship” trilogy on his blog.
Leviathan opens with the assassination of the Serbian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event that precipitated the first world war in our universe, and threatens to do so in Westerfeld’s alternate history. But in Westerfeld’s timeline, some technologies are much more advanced in 1914. Europe is split between the Darwinists, whose array of fantastic genetically engineered creatures include living airships, and the Clankers, who shun biotech in favor of walking tanks and legged land battleships — like steampunk versions of Star Wars‘s walkers.
Despite my longstanding eagerness, I approached Leviathan with slight trepidation. I was worried it would be too militaristic. It wasn’t — there are battle scenes, but the principal characters are working to avert or contain the war, which for me is a crucial attitudinal difference. It’s also written for a younger audience than Westerfeld’s other books (12 and up, according to Simon Pulse). I was slightly embarrassed to be devouring an illustrated “chapter book” at a brainy event like a Lorrie Moore reading — but that didn’t stop me. Westerfeld’s characters — a Clanker princeling and a Scots girl passing as a young airman in the British air navy — are as engaging as in his other books, and the plot is tightly paced and exciting. And Keith Thompson’s illustrations are pretty cool.
What really knocks me out about this one is the world-building. Westerfeld’s alternate history is strange and compelling. For my taste, the artificial ecologies upstage the mechanical constructs. Westerfeld laces them with some mostly credible chemical underpinnings, so there’s even some potential educational value (although the reader might come away with the mistaken belief that undiluted hydrogen has an odor in our universe).
Like my favorites of Westerfeld’s books, Leviathan has a slightly subversive side — he clearly feels no compunction to give equal time to “intelligent design.” The novel is pro-evolution enough that I wouldn’t be surprised to see it banned from some school libraries.
One drawback: it doesn’t end with a literal cliff-hanger, but it’s not entirely satisfying as a stand-alone novel. I sure hope I don’t have to wait three years for the next one.
needs more demons? no.