Monday, May 21, 2012

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've mentioned it before, but I'm wary of highly-recommended books. I tend to find them lacking. If everyone liked something, I find my expectations too high, and I latch onto things other readers were willing to overlook.

With Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, I am relieved to say, the streak is broken. The book lives up to the glowing recommendations. I found it an immensely entertaining, well-paced tale.

Leviathan is an alternate history story set in WWI. It's advertised as steampunk, though it's not set in the Victorian era like most steampunk novels. It does involve advanced technology and gene splicing to create creatures who can stand in for technology, so it shares a lot of elements. The story follows the fictional Aleksandar Ferdinand, son of the Archduke whose assassination sparked the real WWI, and Deryn Sharp, a girl posing as a boy so she can fly on an airship that's made up of a gene-spliced whale/jellyfish/amoeba/whatever.

Initially, I wondered why, if he could change so much of history, Westerfeld didn't just make it so that women could serve openly on an airship. But Dyren's hiding of her identity is mirrored in Alek's, as he is the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and being hunted down to make sure he never inherits it. It also allows for some intriguing gender reversals. Alek envies Dyren's adventurous spirit, her bravado, her ability to bounce back from major hurts. He even envies her foul-mouthed fluency, though all of the swears in the book are invented. What's interesting about the swearing is that it makes sense for the world these characters inhabit; they evolved from the world they live in, rather than simply serving as place-holders.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, the main conflict still ongoing as of the last page. Dyren is still serving on an airship that's limping its way to Constantinople (not Istanbul), she doesn't know what's in the package they're delivering, and Alek is still on the run from those who'd see him put out of the way to simplify European politics.

I don't know a lot about WWI, but the afterword on the audio edition does a lot to clarify and set the record straight on what's real and what's made up. I would hope there aren't any readers who'd be convinced WWI was fought with walking tanks and flying whales, but one never knows, I suppose.

While I'm talking about the audio edition, I will note that Alan Cumming does an excellent job of narrating this tale. His accent for Dr. Barlow sounds a bit schoolmarmish at times, but it certainly differentiates her from the rest of the cast without his affecting a falsetto. The rest of the accents and voices are unique enough to tell characters apart fairly well, and he injects energy into the words to enhance the excitement of the reading.

Overall, I enjoyed this book greatly. It was an easy, quick read, and evoked pulpy, high-adventure tales of that time period. I will be picking up the next two to listen to. I'm looking forward to them.

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