Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Scott Westerfeld is one of my favorite Young Adult novelists. I've enjoyed his work ever since I picked up a copy of Uglies several years ago. He has a knack for interesting characters and world-building, so I was excited to see a new series when I was browsing at the library last week.

Leviathan, the first installment, depicts an alternate-reality Europe on the brink of the first World War. Europe is divided by technology: Darwinists (France, Great Britain, Portugal, and Russia), who use genetically modified animals to conduct their military campaigns, and Clankers (pretty much everyone else, but notably Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire), who prefer coal- and steam-powered machinery and believe that the Darwinists' creations are godless abominations.

The main characters are Deryn and Alek. Deryn is a poor girl from Scotland, who disguised herself as a boy in order to join the military. As a result of a series of accidents that occur during her first training flight, she is separated from her brother and base and winds up on the Leviathan, a gigantic biomachine that is primarily composed of whale DNA. Alek is the son of a certain infamous Archduke whose assassination kicked off the War. When his parents are killed, his father's advisors and loyal men spirit him out of the country in a walker machine (that bears a certain resemblance to the battle machines from Star Wars). The plot centers around bringing the two together and setting the stage for the second two books. As such, it's mostly world-building and backstory and, apart from a few incidents, there isn't a lot of action.

I'm giving this one 3.5 out of 5 stars. While it's very enjoyable, engaging and creatively produced, much like the rest of Westerfeld's work, it's pretty cliched and predictable in a number of ways. Between the memes of cross-dressing girls, royalty on the run, mysterious scientists (who are women! shocking!), and steampunk (ohmygodwillthisirritatinganachronismEVERend?), I don't find the characters as intriguing and original as the ones in Westerfeld's previous work, and, yeah: steampunk? Kind of getting old.

I wasn't a fan of it to begin with, as I detest anachronism as well as viewing parts of history that are undeniably crappy through rose-tinted glasses. Life in the Victorian Era sucked. Economies were unstable and the majority of urban populations of Europe and the United States lived in destitution and squalor. When they weren't pulling eighty hour weeks in pollution-spewing factories, they were at home dying of cholera, typhus, diptheria, and the usual assortment of childhood diseases, of which there were numerous outbreaks due to crowded living conditions and poor sanitation. Oh, and syphilis. That was a big problem then, as well. Things were even worse for you if you were a woman, and you had to deal with awesome things like corsets (which could deform your bones, screw up your internal organs, and, oh, yeah, kill you), high rates of mortality associated with pregnancy and giving birth, a standard of beauty that glorified looking like a tuberculosis patient, and, of course, a complete lack of social, economic, and political autonomy. Yep, that's definitely a time period I want to romanticize. Bring me some goggles and copper spray paint!

My disdain for steampunk aside, I'm still going to read the next two novels in the series. They're good fun reading, and since I can kill an entire one in an afternoon, it's not like I'm wasting much time on them.

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