where the beasties are

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Illustrated by Keith Thompson

Simon Pulse (Simon&Schuster), 2009.

440 pages.

Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan was like Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road; the blogosphere undisputedly recommended this read. It is said if you are interested in SteamPunk read this novel. So like Jellicoe Road, I was actually quite eager to read this one, and waited a long while for my turn to come up on the Library Hold system. Was I disappointed? …

Leviathan is writing an alternate historical take on WWI. Here are the Publisher’s Comments:

It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet.

Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men.

Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

With the Great War brewing, Alek’s and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever.

The last part, the “taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever” part, alludes to the fact that Leviathan is just book one in a series. Yes, there is my ‘spoiler’ for those few others who have not read this book.  They don’t get around the world by novel’s end.

Where some might say that Leviathan could stand alone, I couldn’t. Though the ending has no hold-your-breath while making paper-chains to countdown the release of the sequel, it does leave one hanging. The relentless momentum of the story slides you to a stop and you say “aren’t things just really beginning here?” The ease in which one finds conclusive material (answers to questions) is debatable…as in, please comment with some resolved material–thanks. [and…should first books in series have to have some knots tied off? or can they be unapologetically open-ended?)

What is begun in Westerfeld’s Leviathan is a setting of the stage. Who is Deryn and Alek and how do they get to where they do in order to cross paths? What does the world look like, and what events precipitate current circumstances? A language is created, and creatures and machines are imagined. There are hints of political intrigue, as well as the scientific sort.

The setting is the focus of the narrative and the actors only appear to serve as stage hands. Westerfeld draws the reader into the creation of this alternate world, familiar enough yet utterly fantastic. The scope of his landscape and its inhabitants is enormous. In the romance of the creation and the fun of illustrating this imagined world and its living, breathing, Darwinian, Machinic warring history, the human characters become are roughly hewn chess pieces, cast devices. I am not saying there is no characterization I am merely suggesting that they take a back seat to the workings of the “beasties” and the machines. The characters are the voice-overs, the camera lenses to the actions sequences and interactions between the Darwinist-world and the Clanker-realm. This is not necessarily a criticism; especially if one is in it for a well-imagined world.

As for the characters…

I cannot resist a storyline with a girl trying to successfully disguise her as a boy. Ah, but is “her secret is in constant danger of being discovered?” I feel very little of the suspense.  Her danger is not “constant.” First, we are reassured by Deryn’s brother of her passable appearance with: “It’s just lucky you have no diddies to speak of” (22). Nothing to notice when strapping a harness across her chest for an “air sense” test (33). Next comes the “Oh, by the way, her disguise as a boy is coming along fine” update when we have a breather.  “Her diddies weren’t even the tricky part” (102)… shall I go on with the paragraph and the next three? “Hiding her body was easy….It was her brain she’d had to shift.” Capturing the mentality of a boy of certain age (or any age) is “exhausting.” There a few specifics that warrant a smile, and understanding of her challenge. But Deryn seems to fall in pretty easily because we are back to the workings of Leviathan’s greater world. It also doesn’t hurt that fifteen year-old Deryn feels no physical attraction to any of the hundreds of males on the ship. Conflict only arises in this area until after page 383. I hope this wasn’t a spoiler. Things are sure to be very complicated in this way in book two, no worries. Maybe because I am a grown-up and needing to remind myself that this a 12-13 year-old’s read, but I couldn’t help but wonder about menstrual cycles and figuring all that out.  Regardless, I can have confidence that Deryn/Dylan figured it out. Deryn can do anything—which is my only big character complaint.

Deryn/Dylan has all these fantastic, heart-thumping adventures, but I don’t know how anyone can worry? Everything works out—better than all right. Her annoyances merely place her in the center of the action and intrigue; the action and intrigue necessary to carry the plot forward. Westerfeld gives explanation for Deryn’s gifts of “air sense” and airship related intellect. She was trained from an early age by her father. She must be brave and decisive to take on such a perilous role as a boy in the British Air Service. She is also resourceful, drawing from her book-knowledge and desire for detail. She listens in lectures and makes sketches and notes of all sorts of things. Page 383 introduces the first hiccup, she finds a boy attractive. Another hiccup to follow is in the keeping a secret of his (422), but already her mind is considering a solution to that one (427).

The only convincing fearful moment of “Oh, dear, discovery?!” (out of 2) is with the extremely clever Dr. Barlow (194-5); who is also instrumental in the suspense of a “will Deryn reveal herself?” scene (428).

Alek is our other protagonist, and on alternate chapters we get to hang out with him. Alek is also fifteen, but he comes across more sheltered, and he is fairly inept at deception. Really, his inability to finesse a situation or just stay invisible causes all sorts of trouble for him and his companion. But he is so damned sincere. The enormity of his situation has few ready solutions. Where the world appears to be at Deryn’s mercy, Alek is at the mercy of the world. His position of privilege and politic cripples him, holds him back, ensnares him. He would be endearing.

Even after Alek and Deryn meet you are still given their alternating point-of-views. The alternating helps build the world of the Darwinist-Britain and the Clanker-Austria-Hungary. Their perspectives hold to their nationalist way of thinking about natural science and engineering. As they begin to cooperate, so do the ideas they each favor. They find peace and progress through working together. If the point of the book is to set a stage and get Deryn and Alek into some sort of workable relationship, then the story is a success. The backdrop is provided–Deryn and Alek keep pace and overcome some sore differences through their compassionate and reasonable resolves. Dr. Barlow makes for an interesting guidance counselor.

The female characters appear the most powerful figures in Leviathan. Dr. Nora Barlow is observant, clever, determined, and persuasive. I already mentioned Deryn, top-of-her-class, ambitious. Even Alek’s mother is seen as a powerful and persuasive, world-altering force. It is hard to say which gender the book favors but I found the Archduke, Volger, and Alek the most palatable in comparison. Perhaps it is due to how we learn about them; the revelations through their interactions that they have each other’s loyalty and protection. I would have to think further about this. The gender roles and expectations…I would think the series read first would be the most illuminating.


Westerfeld is able to move through Time very easily, leaving you with Alek here and upon returning to him, Westerfeld catches you up to him there. This movement appears effortless. [I am terrible with this in my own efforts at writing so I am considering how this is done.] He summarizes in clean linear sequences/sentences. [I need to be less circular.]

The author also writes action-sequences well. Westerfeld takes time with the setting and the positioning of character and machinery (or beasties) while keeping the tension in the forefront of the reader’s mind by making the sets and placements with quick, incisive direction. There is really no lyricism; few similes or metaphors (if any, now that I think about it). This is tricky for me considering my last two reads (Frances Hardinge’s The Lost Conspiracy and Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road). Needless to say, many will find Leviathan a pleasure to read.

Westerfeld is using words he introduces with plenty of context and you can find it easier to follow his lexicon as you go along. He also works to illustrate a picture of his machines and beasties while still integrating their descriptions into the action. I get the feeling Westerfeld could make anything potentially academic interesting for the most avid Jerry Bruckheimer fans. Just the same, work is put into some detailing on how things appear and function.

In talking about Leviathan one must mention the illustrator Keith Thompson. Where Westerfeld works with words to illustrate this alternate WWI world, Thompson provides the visual aids. Thompson’s work is incredible. And there is no skimping on his contributions; no picture here or eventually there.

Thompson’s illustrations are as active and propelling as the pace Westerfeld keeps. They are also illuminating. I especially appreciate his drawings of the airship, the Leviathan. I don’t think that Westerfeld fails the reader with his depictions, but Thompson’s rendering adds a favorable sense of clarity.  I really enjoyed the picture of Deryn and Alek on page 274. Deryn (as Dylan) looks taller, more powerful, and in control next to the smaller, head covered, distress-browed looking Alek. Indeed, Deryn looks the more masculine of the two. What does Alek observe of Dylan? That Dylan is more the boy, more the soldier than he.

When I think about being the appropriate age of Leviathan’s audience, I could not be too disappointed. I am going to experiment by having the daughter read it in the near future. The read is highly accessible. Outside of the language of the characters and their jargon, there are no challenging vocabulary words. I think the read is one to be enjoyed by boy or girl; but I can see the draw for the boy-reader.

I’ve yet to read enough SteamPunk to judge this book by their standards, but a sinister sense that darkens the edges appears to missing. Perhaps that is a misperception of the subculture on my part. Also, I am not 12-13-ish; I felt quite safe and didn’t hear any atmospheric music to accompany the final scenes and that last illustration. For the younger crowd, Leviathan looks to be a good first dip into the increasingly popular genre.


I read Philp Reeve’s Mortal Engines (book one of the Hungry City Chronicles) a couple of months ago. I think Leviathan readers would enjoy this read as well; for the science fiction aspect. Reeve does not have an illustrator, but he crafts envision-able depictions of his creations.

The film Steamboy (2004) directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo, written by Ôtomo  and Sadayuki Murai, will be of interest to Leviathan’s readership (young and older).


A few links to reviews. Suey and Bart have links to reviews at the end of their posts that I also enjoyed, so please look at those. Also Fyrefly’s Book Blog has a nice reviewing format and is a good one; I wouldn’t want you to miss that one for sake of time.

Suey at It’s All About Books

Bart’s Bookshelf

Fyrefly’s Book Blog


the Keith Thompson drawings included are: 1- “Addressing the Applicants” (29); 2- “Ascending” (35); 3- “Stealing Away” (9)

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

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