What if World War I was fought with giant walking machines and genetically modified monsters instead of airplanes and ammunition? What if, instead of telephones and radios, long-distance communication was carried out by talking lizards and trained birds? What if our version of history was somehow turned on its head and futuristic tales were spun instead?
This is just what happens in Scott Westerfeld’s exciting new novel for young adults, Leviathan. Westerfeld treats readers to a captivating story about a young boy in the early 1900s, who happens to be the orphaned son of Archduke Ferdinand. History teaches us that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife ignited the sparks that led to World War I. In Leviathan, this bit of history remains the same, but the details of the war are dramatically different: Britain and her allies are armed with a fleet of Darwinian-created “beasties,” including a flying, hydrogen-burping whale, while Austria and her allies fight with enormous “clankers” made of metal and gears, and run by classic engines.
For Westerfeld, whose previous works for teens include the Uglies and Midnighters trilogies, writing in the genre known as “steampunk” has been an interesting challenge. “It’s about rewriting history in an alternative way—and making it better,” he says in a telephone interview from New York, a day after arriving in the city from his native Australia. Westerfeld and his wife Justine Larbalestier, also a successful YA author, divide their time between the two locations.
Although steampunk has been around for awhile (think H.G. Wells and Jules Verne), it gained notoriety in the 1980s and ’90s. The genre gets its name from the time period in which most stories are set, the Victorian era, when steam power was king. Westerfeld became aware of the genre when he came across a role-playing game called Space 1899, in which players explore futures that could have been. “That was the first time I realized that people were really doing this stuff and thinking it through,” he says.
Westerfeld especially enjoyed researching and writing about the technology of the era. “Everything looked weird at the time, sort of clunky and fantastical: airplanes had three wings, tanks looked like boilers on tractor treads,” he says. He particularly liked researching zeppelins—both the original giant flyers and his own genetically fabricated creations. “I have a big airship fetish,” Westerfeld admits, “and thought a living airship would be a kind of fascinating thing.” To do research, he and Justine went to the headquarters of Zeppelin Corporation in Switzerland, where a smaller version of the historically giant airships are still being produced. “We got to go up in one and that was cool,” Westerfeld says.
He also drew a bit of inspiration from the biological sciences: Darwin and his true-life granddaughter Dr. Nora Darwin
Barlow play major roles in the book. “Scientists of that era were the original action hero-adventurers,” Westerfeld explains, “and I thought it would be fun to make Darwin a character.” Indeed, the author takes Darwinian philosophy to a new level, creating a world in which Darwin has discovered DNA threads and has been able to manipulate them to create hybrid animal species: jellyfish that float through the air like hot air balloons, lizards that talk like parrots, and of course, the title creature Leviathan, the aforementioned flying whale.
To help us visualize these fanciful creatures, Westerfeld enlisted the artful talents of Keith Thompson, who created more than 50 illustrations for the book. “It was a very collaborative process,” he says. “He did with the pictures the same thing I was doing with the text. It was like being a novelist and an art director at the same time.” After Thompson drew the magnificent creatures and ornate machines that Westerfeld had imagined, the author edited the text to reflect the details that Thompson had added.
Westerfeld’s exuberance for the technology of the era—and beyond—comes through clearly in his writing. From mechanized horses to metal-eating bats, eight-legged battleships and light-producing earthworms, he has created a world where technological and biological sciences collide. “It’s a war between two completely different world-views,” he notes.
The same could be said of the early 20th century, and the events of the era created fodder for Westerfeld’s storyline. “The great thing about doing historical research is that you can look back and say, if they had only done this it could have all been different. It’s a fascinating perspective.” By creating the alternate reality of Leviathan, Westerfeld is able to inspire his readers—young and old—to think about what really did happen at that time in history, how close we might have come to the fictional story, and how the fate of the world can hinge on seemingly innocuous events.
Heidi Henneman writes from New York.Copyright 2009 BookPage Reviews.
Launching a planned four-book series, Westerfeld (the Uglies series) explores an alternate 1914 divided between Darwinists, who advocate advanced biotechnology, and Clankers, masters of retrofuturistic mechanical engineering. Austria-Hungary's Prince Aleksandar is whisked away into the night by trusted advisers; he soon learns that his parents, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie, have been murdered and that he has been targeted by prowar Germans. Half a continent away, Deryn Sharp successfully passes as a young man to join the British Air Service; her bravery during a catastrophic first flight aboard a genetically enhanced jellyfish ("The creatures' fishy guts could survive almost any fall, but their human passengers were rarely so lucky") earns Deryn a post on the living airship Leviathan. The fortunes of war lead Aleksandar and Deryn to the Swiss Alps, where they must cooperate or face destruction at the hands of the Germans. The protagonists' stories are equally gripping and keep the story moving, and Thompson's detail-rich panels bring Westerfeld's unusual creations to life. The author's fully realized world has an inventive lexicon to match--readers will be eager for the sequels. Ages 12-up. (Oct.)[Page 62]. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.
Gr 7 Up--This is World War I as never seen before. The story begins the same: on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated, triggering a sequence of alliances that plunges the world into war. But that is where the similarity ends. This global conflict is between the Clankers, who put their faith in machines, and the Darwinists, whose technology is based on the development of new species. After the assassination of his parents, Prince Aleksandar's people turn on him. Accompanied by a small group of loyal servants, the young Clanker flees Austria in a Cyklop Stormwalker, a war machine that walks on two legs. Meanwhile, as Deryn Sharp trains to be an airman with the British Air Service, she prays that no one will discover that she is a girl. She serves on the Leviathan, a massive biological airship that resembles an enormous flying whale and functions as a self-contained ecosystem. When it crashes in Switzerland, the two teens cross paths, and suddenly the line between enemy and ally is no longer clearly defined. The ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel, and that's a good thing because readers will be begging for more. Enhanced by Thompson's intricate black-and-white illustrations, Westerfeld's brilliantly constructed imaginary world will capture readers from the first page. Full of nonstop action, this steampunk adventure is sure to become a classic.--Heather M. Campbell, formerly at Philip S. Miller Library, Castle Rock, CO[Page 176]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.