According to the bard, "Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them". Young Alek is one of the latter. Although born to a royal lineage, his claim to the throne is disreputed because of the lowborn status of his mother. Which means nothing in the scheme of things, life simply going on as it invariably does, until his parents are unexpectedly assassinated when they travel to Sarajevo, all hell breaks loose and nothing can ever be the same again, as he finds himself the object of an intense manhunt by the Germans and Austrians both, and all that he now possesses is one Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men between himelf and certain death - and his own strength and intelligence! Having been awakened in the middle of the night by his fencing master and his master of mechaniks on the pretext of a training mission, he is now in a deadly race to the Swiss border and the freedom of that country's neutrality in the face of impending war - a war which will change not only the shape of Europe but the whole world forever, a war of global proportions and magnitude never seen before. Meanwhile, a young British girl named Deryn Sharp has disguised herself as a boy named Dylan in order to enter the British Air Service, finding herself upon the whale airship Leviathan, the most magnificent beast in the entire fleet, engaged upon a secret mission to the Ottoman Empire. And thus we enter the world of Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan.
When Deryn begins her quest to enter the royal air service, she only wishes to serve as best she can, to be as useful as any lad, and not forced into what she considers to be the lame world of women, with their skirts and their cooking and their, to her, inability to do anything exciting. Assisted by her older brother Jaspert, who is himself a member of said service, and who helps her to train toward her goal, she becomes a recruit and now must pass the midshipman's test, which is being given at the airship field at Wormwood Scrubs. Her brother hints that the recruits will be tested on a sense of "air sense", but Deryn puts that down to his trying to rattle her cage, when lo and behold they find themselves shown an actual Huxley ascender - a tentacled creature, the first fabricated creature designed, a far cry from the modern giant living airships of the day, with their gondolas, engines and observation decks. The Huxley, also known as a medusa, is formed from the life-chains of jellyfish and other venomous sea creatures, and is not an easy beastie to deal with. When Deryn sees the pilot's rig which hangs beneath it, she has an idea what is going to happen, and when the Flight Captain thins their ranks of the Monkey Luddites - who wish nothing to do with the beast - and seeks a volunteer to be first to take the ride with the Huxley, Deryn does not hesitate to step up! And what a glorious experience it is, until she is aloft and spots a storm coming their way which those on the ground cannot see, and she finds herself and the Huxley in a perilous situation, which only her quick wits and natural abilities prevent from becoming tragic! In the course of her adventure, she is blown far off course, over the English Channel itself, and ends up being rescued by none other than the Leviathan! She thinks she is dreaming when not only does she become Midshipman Dylan Sharp, but is assigned to duty on the very vessel which rescued her!
Meanwhile, Alek is finding it difficult to come to grips with the swiftly drastic changes that have occurred in his life, beginning with his parents' deaths, and his leaving his home in the middle of the night, and even briefly wonders if he is being kidnapped for some reason. When he first espies the six-legged majesty of the machine that is S.M.S. Beowulf, his first thought is that they have been searching for him, in order to effect his rescue, an idea which is quickly dispelled when they open fire upon Alek and his stormwalker, and he and his people are forced to flee for their lives! Luckily, Count Volger is a resourceful man and has had an escape plan in place for a very long time. When Alek asks, he confesses that he began planning it when Archduke Ferdinand married Sophie, a commoner, as they hole up in a ruin of a castle high in the Alps. In the meantime, Deryn is learning the ropes as a midshipman on the Leviathan, and their current mission has begun with the unthinkable - they have landed the huge ship in the middle of Regent's Park to pick up a boffin and her mysterious cargo, and are to take her to the Ottoman Empire for reasons unknown! Because of the weight of this cargo, all but two of the middies are let go, and Alek ends up as almost a personal attendant for the boffin, Dr. Barlow, who turns out to be a woman! The woman is too sharp, by far, and Deryn fears for a moment that her secret is revealed, but she finds herself safe for the moment - just as German aeroplanes hove into view, and force the Leviathan into a snow mountain landing! From his protected fortress, Alek espies the crash, and wishes to help, but Volger refuses to allow him to do so, fearing for his safety. A stubborn Alek slips out in the middle of night, taking first aid kits with him, in case they are needed - or is it just a curiousity to see what has happened? As he nears the wreck of the strange beast/airship, he discovers the half frozen body of a young boy - none other than Deryn Sharp! And in assisting Deryn, he finds himself a captive of the Darwinists, the avowed enemy of the Clankers!
Steampunk is a genre which contains elements of fantasy and sci-fi along with speculative fiction, and is generally set in an era where steam power is predominant, such as the Victorian era, and often involves inventions being put into place before their true time, such as those found in the fertile imagiinations of HG Wells and Jules Verne, or alternative realities where history has taken a different path. It came to some prominence in the 1980's and 90's, and enjoys a secure niche in the loyalty of its readers even today, and has even made the transition to the big screen in such films as The Wild Wild West and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Leviathan is set just on the cusp of World War I, and draws on actual events and people, interweaving them cleverly with the author's own imagination. The British Darwinists have discovered the `life chains which make up all life, and have learned to combine the best of various species into entirely new creatures. For example, the Leviathan itself is a symbiotic system which involves not only the whale but a host of other animals. The bats, which feed on insects and fruit and metal flechettes, are used as weapons, excreting the flechettes onto the enemy. And bees have been bred which do not sting! It is a natural system, as opposed to the world of the German and Austrian Clankers, which involves steam engine machinery and hydraulics. The two words are clearly at odds with one another, so it is no wonder that a global conflagration is in the works. And, as usually is the case, each sides believes their way to be right, while the other is totally wrong. But when the two forces meet via the Leviathan, forced to become allies in the face of the common enemy that seeks to destroy them both, then there are indeed lessons to be learned, lessons in cooperation, and friendship and compromise. By the end of the book, Deryn's secret identity is intact, but how long can that last when she had begun to have strange feelings about Alek? What is she to do with those? And how long will Dr. Barlow be clueless as to her actual gender? And what is so important about the cargo that Dr. Barlow carries, that she is taking it to people who are professed Clankers? Leviathan is categorized as teen fiction, but I think it possesses the same sort of universal appeal that the Harry Potter series does, and no one should be discouraged from reading it for that reason. Teen Fiction is not what it once was, it has certainly grown, welcoming many excellent writers into its fold, and certainly shouldn't be overlooked. Scott Westerveld draws us into his characters' stories from the very beginning, and the skillful way he makes use of history is fascinating, bringing it very much to life. After all, the things we do today are what the students of tomorrow will learn as history, and those who think it is a dead subject are sadly misinformed! And lest I forget, the book is richly illustrated by Keith Thompson - his drawings take my breath away, as he so wonderfully portrays the world which Scott Westervelt writes about! I look forward to further installments of this series!
I wholeheartedly give Leviathan ★★★★★