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Friday, February 21, 2014

Steampunk and Darwinists, Clankers and Beasties: A Review of Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

I've never read a steampunk novel, and since I'm trying to read outside my usual genres, I knew it was time. What is a steampunk? Steampunks (usually) take place in the past, like WWI era, when the west was wild, Victorian, or the medieval times, but has big crazy machines and technology in it. As this definition puts it "What the past would look like if the future had come sooner." It's like sci-fi mixed with historical fiction.

For the last five years, I've heard how steampunk is going to be "the next big genre." But I don't think it's made it yet. When I asked for steampunk reading suggestions, no one could give me any they read personally, though Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan was mentioned several times because people knew his Uglies series. So I chose to read it because it's the only novel title I heard. Plus, Scott has to be a decent writer with the popularity of Uglies, right? (That series is still on my to-read list).

Fiction for Readers

It is the cusp of World War I. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ genetically fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet. 

 Aleksandar Ferdinand, a Clanker, and Deryn Sharp, a Darwinist, are on opposite sides of the war. But their paths cross in the most unexpected way, taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure….One that will change both their lives forever.

This book trailer explains the story excellently:

Who is it for?

Since steampunk still feels like a new genre (it's never quite made it into the mainstream), if you aren't comfortable with the concept of sci-fi and historical fiction getting married, it might be difficult for you to get into. It might feel too far "out there" from reality. You might not be ready for it yet. I'll be honest, you might not get it. But if you are interested, just go with it. It might seem a little weird, but just let things happen and let them be.

On the other hand, if you have a very healthy and active imagination as a person, you'll be fine. This book basically requires a big imagination. Not only are you back in time with crazy war machines, but this novel takes it further by throwing in genetically altered war animals that you can "pilot" and ride inside them, that's a part of Leviathan most steampunks don't have. But visual aides can go a long way, so the book is illustrated. Here are some pictures to give you a feel of the world we're living in.

I see those pictures, and they make me excited to read the book! Others see those pictures and they're thinking, "What the heck?" So, how you feel about the pictures might be a good indicator if this is a book for you.

Okay, talking about the book in general, it's a milieu novel. There are four types of novels, milieu (setting focused), idea (theme focused), character (character focused), and event (plot focused). Leviathan is more concerned with the setting than anything else. It's a book to show us what WWI would look like with machines and genetically engineered animals. The characters are the secondary focus--Westerfeld does a good job with them, their attitudes, goals, and voice. So, if you are interested in a world like this with fun characters, this might be for you. If you're looking for a tightly weaved riveting plot with big thematic ideas, you'll be a bit disappointed.


Scott Westerfeld has a nice clear writing style. He does a fantastic job of describing all of the facets of this world in a way that I can picture. His attention to details put me right into the story, into that setting, where I could smell the hydrogen and see the controls. Considering all the otherworldly machines and creatures he's describing, that takes some talent. But not only were his descriptions great, but his actions scenes were clear and well-paced.

Throughout the book, I often found myself thinking about just how much research and skill it would take to write a novel like this. Not only is Westerfeld pulling from history, but sciences about animals and machinery, describing them in a way that readers can follow, all while portraying the voice and personalities of his characters perfectly.

I liked both of the protagonists. After his father is assassinated, Austrian Aleksandar Ferdinand has to go on the run in a machine/robot, and we get to follow him as he evades enemies on a journey across countries. Because of his heritage, Aleksander brings a high-class, sophisticated perspective to the story. The other protagonist, Deryn Sharp is a Scottish girl who, disguised as a boy, travels to London to join the military. Her dream is to pilot the genetically altered animal aircrafts. But when war starts, she gets swept into the battles.

Both characters are a bit prideful, but it's a lovable kind of pride. I like how Westerfeld took the time to tap into Alek's and Deryn's background to get their voice and dialogue just right. I get to hear Deryn say phrases like "barking spiders," and "beasties," for example.

As I mentioned before, there isn't much structure to the plot, nor is there much to the theme. But this is a story about worldbuilding, imagination, and history--and it fully succeeds in portraying that. Please note though, there is a plot, and it has good pacing. There are moments of action and then there is downtime exploring the machines and animals. There is even a scrap of mystery in it.

Leviathan is a kaleidoscope of imagination, creatures, machinery, and colorful characters. If you read it, let yourself get swept up in it. I liked it enough that I plan on finishing the series.

Check out Leviathan on Amazon.


  1. I concur with everything you just wrote. Do you intend to continue the series? I must admit, I'm not feeling overly motivated to anytime soon.

    1. Yeah, I'll finish it. I thought it was interesting enough. But I'm not in a big hurry or anything. More of a leisure read.


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