Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan saga has many elements dear to our hearts, including alternate-history, plucky heroes of both genders, and strange inventions. But after reading the second book, Behemoth, we realized we really love these books for the pure escapist rush.
Minor spoilers ahead...
For those who missed the first book, the Leviathan trilogy is set in an alternate World War I where a number of things are different. For one thing, the British and their allies ("the Darwinists") have developed a kind of genetic engineering, allowing them to create airships and sea monsters (among other things) that fight on their side. Meanwhile, the Germans and their friends ("the Clankers") have created superior robots and war machines.
There are two protagonists: Aleksander ("Alek"), who's fleeing the assassination of his parents and may be the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. And Deryn, a young girl who disguises herself as a boy ("Dylan") to become a midshipman aboard the Leviathan, a huge living airship. (Deryn gets to serve aboard the Leviathan thanks to a complicated chain of circumstances in the first book, too lengthy to go into.)
There's a lot of darkness in the two main characters' backstory. Alek's parents are murdered and he's forced to grow up fast and make some tough choices. Deryn's father has died in a balloon accident, which has left her somewhat traumatized. Plus it takes place against the backdrop of one of the most vicious, bloody wars in human history. But what's even clearer in the second book than in the first is that this is primarily a fun, light-hearted — even goofy — series. Unlike, say, the Hunger Games books, which have moments of playfulness and some improbable events, but are fundamentally dark and disturbing.
I guess there's something inherently escapist about identifying with a prince in hiding, who may be one of the most important people in the world and also happens to be both clever and dashing. Or with a girl who manages to turn herself into the most gallant midshipman in the Navy, and goes around being more competent than everybody else, while still managing to be wide-eyed and spout the endearing catch-phrase, "Barking spiders." But you won't believe how much you'll want to be either one of these characters by the end of the second book.
With Behemoth, Westerfeld takes the adventure-story format of the first novel a good deal further, with bracing results. Every few pages, one of our two heroes mounts a daring rescue, escapes from certain death, sneaks into or out of occupied territory, or outsmarts the Germans. It's sort of like a comic book, or an old-school adventure serial — but what saves it from feeling too repetitive or episodic is the fact that Westerfeld keeps the plot moving steadily forward, and the characters develop a lot (in sometimes quite surprising ways) as the story progresses.
I guess I was expecting the second book in the series to be the "dark" one, Empire Strikes Back-style. But Westerfeld, if anything, goes the other way. The characters become even more enviable their exploits become way more impressive — with Deryn even getting a bit of a promotion. There's a large dose of wish-fulfillment, but when it's married to story-telling this clever, you won't mind a bit.
So this time around, we visit Istanbul (or "Constantinople," as various characters insist on calling it, putting the reader inevitably in mind of the They Might Be Giants song) and the neutral Sultan is in danger of joining the Clanker side of the Great War, which would spell disaster for the Darwinists. Our heroes get involved in local politics and there's a fair amount of scheming and intrigue. More importantly, we get to see a wider array of weird mecha and unusual fabricated creatures — including what was inside those mysterious eggs in the first book. There's also a development in the alternate-history world-building that will immensely please fans of Nikola Tesla.
And the relationship between our two protagonists, Alek and Deryn, grows a lot deeper and more compelling this time around, as they prove they're each other's perfect foils. I am normally extremely grumpy about books that alternate between two point-of-view main characters in alternating chapters, because this device is done extremely badly a lot of the time. In theory, swapping between two POV characters from chapter to chapter lets you get two different perspectives on what's going on — but in practice, the two characters often feel too similar, and the device feels distracting and maybe a bit lazy, in the hands of some authors. (Exhibit A for when this device doesn't work, in my view: House Of Suns by Alastair Reynolds.) But Westerfeld's book is the rare case where the alternating POV chapters really do work, maybe because the two characters' viewpoints are distinct enough. And this time around, with the two characters spending more time together, the flip-flopping POVs just serve to illuminate how they each see their relationship. Oh, and we get a bit of a love triangle this time around — but it's not at all what you expect, thank goodness.
Once again, Westerfeld's storytelling gains a huge boost from the suitable-for-framing art of Mr. Keith Thompson. With so many mechanical versions of Hindu deities and animals wandering around, not to mention ridiculously cute bio-engineered critters perching on people's shoulders, having classy engravings to help us visualize is a huge plus.
And Westerfeld's prose is livelier than ever, like in this hilarious bit where Alek's master of mechanics, Klopp, tries to disguise himself as a native of Istanbul:
"I do look rather Turkish, don't I?" Klopp said, regarding himself in the mirror.
Alek hesitated a moment, struggling for words. The man didn't look like a Turk at all — more like a zeppelin wrapped in blue silk with a tasseled nose cone.
"Perhaps without the fez, sir," Bauer suggested.
And later, there's a great bit where Deryn ponders the fact that Alek has a letter from the Pope entitling him to the throne of Austria-Hungary, while she'll always be a commoner:
The pope did not write letters to transform orphan daughters of balloonists, or girls in boys' britches, or unrepentant Darwinists, into royalty. She was dead certain of that.
It's all ridiculously too much fun, and yet Leviathan and Behemoth also do what the best alternate history does — force you to see our present day world anew, by putting a distorting lens of strangeness over the past.
Interior art from Behemoth by the inestimable Keith Thompson.