Plenty of young-adult novels feature teens reaching adulthood in a world that adults have royally buggered. And there's no shortage of books about a British Empire with improbably high technology. But Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan makes both of those themes epic.
Leviathan, out in a pretty gorgeous hardcover recently, doesn't feel like merely the latest iteration of the slew of "coming of age in dystopia" young-adult novels, even though that description pretty much fits: The book takes place at the start of an alternate-history World War I that looks to be every bit as bloody and horrifying as the real version. Nor does Leviathan feel like the umpteenth vaguely steampunk (or in this case, diesel-punk) book to come down the pike.
There are a few reasons for this. Most notably, Westerfeld leavens his dark wartime tale with a more-than-generous amount of humor and lightness — one character's catchphrase, "Barking spiders!", has already become a daily utterance among people of my acquaintance. But also, Westerfeld throws in enough odd twists to make his own peculiar alt-history seem quite unmistakable.
This seems like a good place to warn that there'll be spoilers in this review.
So as you might already have heard, Leviathan takes place in a very different version of Europe — the Germans and Austrians have fantastical machines, including Walkers (massive diesel-powered stomping machines that wouldn't be out of place among Star Wars' AT-ATs) and weird running machines. Meanwhile, though, Britain and some of its allies have developed a very different technology — in this timeline, Darwin discovered DNA, and now the British are able to recombine DNA strands to engineer new life-forms, including weaponized bats that eat and shit flechettes, and the Leviathan itself, a kind of floating whale kept aloft by the hydrogen created by the creatures in its belly.
So instead of merely being a conflict between two power blocs in Europe, World War I becomes the conflict between Britain's genetically-engineering Darwinists and Austria/Germany's mechanistic Clankers.
Into this odd (and somewhat implausible) alternate timeline, Westerfeld throws in two different young protagonists who are coming of age on opposite sides. Alek is the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination sets off the war in the first place, and because Alek could be next in line for the Archduke's throne (if his mother's commoner blood can be overcome) the Germans and Austrians will stop at nothing to destroy him. So his teachers take to the road in a walking machine, trying to stay one step ahead of the assassins who are trying to finish the job with the last family member.
Meanwhile, our other protagonist, Deryn Sharp, is a girl who pretends to be a boy so she can join the armed forces and fly through the skies on one of those dashing genetically engineered creatures. The plucky Deryn, now renamed Dylan, gets swept off to sea on a "Huxley," (a sort of floating jellyfish, I think), and winds up getting rescued by the Leviathan, becoming the newest member of her crew. Despite the constant risk of exposure, Deryn/Dylan never hesitates to throw herself into the midst of danger, scaling the heights of the Leviathan's rigging in the midst of peril at sea, and braving storms and enemy aircraft to do her duty and prove herself the best midshipman aboard. (She's the one who exclaims "Barking spiders!" at opportune moments.)
So both protagonists are guarding secrets with their lives, and they're both on the cusp of discovering first-hand just how ruinous the war the older generation has engineered will become. It's a good recipe for both protagonists to figure out who they really are, aside from the expectations that people have placed on them. Alek and Deryn figure out how to work the machines and organic creatures that they ride inside of, but at the same time we see them learning (by trial and error) to navigate the weird world of adult society, which is bumpier and more fault-prone than a thousand diesel-powered walking machines.
And the machines-vs-monsters war seems to hint at becoming a framework for a larger debate about which is preferable: to surround ourselves with raw technology, or to adapt nature to serve our purposes. The book (which is just the first volume in a new series) hints that the only real answer is a fusion between the two elements.
Leviathan is worth reading just for the larger-than-life adventures against a fascinatingly rendered backdrop of weird machines and weirder creatures — and Keith Thompson's illustrations, some of which we've featured before, add an extra layer of awesomeness to the mix as well. But as a new spin on the theme of young people discovering their place in an insane world, it's a genuinely memorable story.