“Barking Spiders!”: Stephanie Attempts to Explain “Leviathan” by Scott Westerfeld

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Summary: In a world divided into countries of Clankers and Darwinists, Alek is the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. When his parents are assassinated, it sparks a powder keg (how many times did you hear that in high school?) and launches Europe into WWI. His most loyal followers sneak Alek away to protect him from those who hunt him.

Meanwhile, Deryn, whose father raised her for flight, disguises herself as a boy called Dylan Sharp and starts a promising military career aboard the biggest airbeast in the British fleet – the Leviathan. When the airbeast is sent on a special mission to the Ottoman Empire, she is thrust into the heart of the war….and of course her destiny and Alek’s will become intertwined along the way.

So….how do I explain this? Well, before I read this book I can’t say I really knew what “steampunk” meant. I believed it to involve big gears and machinery and such and I knew you could dress steampunk and knew what that looked like… But now I have been on wikipedia to actually find out and of course, wikipedia only tells me true facts – “Steampunk involves an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century and often Victorian era Britain —that incorporates prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy.”

This book is STEAMPUNK and it is really neat.

I’ll start with the Clankers – these are the countries that I would probably call the “axis powers” although maybe you’re only supposed to use that if you’re talking about WWII. Regardless – the main players that concern us in the book would be Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire. They have incredible war machines that certainly have not and do not exist. What we become most familiar with in the story are “walkers.” These are basically like enormous tanks with engine rooms and large guns, but instead of treads they have legs. Hence the name. Enormous metal contraptions that can walk upright on two legs or have as many as eight. Later on in Behemoth we even see walkers made to the shape of animals – enormous elephants (or elephantines here) and scorpions for example. Everything is metal and steam and hard edges.

Meanwhile – England, France, Russia – these are the Darwinist countries. In the summary up there, I said airbeast. Not airship. Airbeast. Because the Leviathan is AN ENORMOUS FUCKING WHALE. The largest of the hydrogen breathers and full to bursting with all kinds of strange creatures like hydrogen sniffers (dogs with two faces to sniff out hydrogen leaks), flechette bats (who swallow bits of metal and vomit and/or shit them really fast onto enemies to shred them and/or their equipment), and messenger lizards (who scamper all over and can record messages to repeat back to others.) Seriously, it is bananas. Some part of me wants to be offended by how impossible it is, but then I remind myself that I love fantasy and magic so why can’t I love fake science? Okay, for you, Scott Westerfeld…

So anyway, in this universe Charles Darwin not only had the thought that it seemed living creatures have changed or evolved over time – he also discovered DNA and that if you mix DNA from different animals together you can come up with a new better one that you can hatch out of an egg. ….Okay, I’ll go with it.

It is a little bizarre though because though these “beasties” are animals, they are treated like equipment. This freaking whale flies through the air all day with people and other animals all over and all inside it and I guess he’s just cool with it? Kind of weird…but you get used to the convention the farther you get and it begins to seem a bit less crazy until you start thinking about it again. The Clankers consider the Darwinists godless heathens and are for the most part terrified of the idea of all these beasts. The Darwinists can’t seem to understand why on earth you’d build a metal walker when animals can already walk (and also don’t break down and can stand back up if they fall.)

The book is written in third person, but alternates every few chapters between Alek and Deryn’s point of view – and so alternates between normal English and Deryn’s crazy way of talking which is awesome. She pretty much yells “Blisters!” or “Barking spiders!” about everything and it amuses me. I like it. It’s easy to pick up on and fun to read, I think. I enjoy both characters. They’re both young – 15, so do have a tendency to be a bit full of themselves and annoying and make mistakes, but not in a bad way – just in a realistic way. Deryn has got to be the best girl disguised as a boy soldier EVER. She never angsts about anything, she’s tough as nails, she can swear as good as any boy, and she is a brilliant midshipman…but in a really believable way, not a “No way you can actually do that, Mary Sue” way. She cares way more about her duty to ship and country than about finding a cute boy lost in the snow. It’s awesome. I enjoy her a lot.

The characters in general are just great. The plot is really interesting and knowing about WWI will not really spoil you too much. In this version, Archduke Ferdinand and Princess Sophie are not shot, but poisoned and it is suspected that the Germans (Austria’s allies) were actually the culprits, not the Serbs – it was certainly people anxious for war and desperate for a way to start it. The Leviathan starts on a mad expedition to deliver mysterious eggs full of some sort of beast to the Ottoman Empire for unknown reasons just before England declares war on Germany. And when Alek falls in with their party, things really get complicated for everyone.

I devoured Leviathan pretty quickly despite its length. The font is large and there are pictures! Gorgeous, steampunk pictures! The illustrations are really superb AND you can still view them even if you buy the book on your Kindle, which is great! I’m currently reading Behemoth and am completely invested in the story and the characters and cannot wait to find out what happens next.

This crazy almost-reality world Westerfeld has created is super intriguing, the characters are likable and realistic. Overall, a fantastic read and I definitely see Goliath in our Bibliomantics Book Club future!


11 thoughts on ““Barking Spiders!”: Stephanie Attempts to Explain “Leviathan” by Scott Westerfeld

  1. The moral of World War One is, “Never assassinate Archduke Ferdinand.” Lemony Snicket, “The Miserable Mill”

    Just bought “Leviathan” for my Kindle so I can see the pictures and be caught up for the month we do “Goliath” in the Bibliomantic Book Club.

    I’ve read a few steampunk books, but this one by far seems the most amazingly ridiculous! Now I can’t decide if I want to travel to work on a steampunk dragon or on a steampunk whale. ::is torn::

    • Hahah, yeah assassinating Archduke Ferdinand is always a poor choice. Especially in this book because it makes Alek sad 😦

      And it really is amazingly ridiculous. I’m excited to hear what you think. And if I remember correctly I believe Goliath comes out in October.

      • Tell my boss to not make me open all the time. Then I wouldn’t fall asleep every time I try to watch “Avatar” when I get home.

  2. Oh my god, this book sounds completely crazy. I’M EXCITED.

    The whale-ship reminds me of a recent episode of Doctor Who. I wonder if they stole ideas from Scott?

    Also, I hate when the Fire Nation, I mean Germans, attack WITH THEIR MACHINES.

  3. I bought this book last month and haven’t picked it up since. But you had me at “barking spiders!” and a flying whaleship. It sounds crazy and fantastic all at once!

    I also appreciate that Scott Westerfeld writes girl characters who don’t angst about everything, and they usually kick more ass than the guys.

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