Recent Reads: “Barking Spiders!” Edition

“Leviathan”- Scott Westerfeld, illustrations by Keith Thompson

The year is 1914, and the world stands on the brink of war. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife have been assassinated, and their son Alek has been smuggled into hiding by those most loyal to his father. At first, Alek resents the men who have stolen him away in the middle of the night, until it quickly becomes clear that there is no safe place for him. The Germans want him dead because he is Austrian, and his own people want him dead because he is the heir to the throne of the empire.

Meanwhile, Deryn Sharp is fulfilling her dream of being trained as an airman in the British service. To do so, she has to pose as a boy, something that she doesn’t find particularly hard. When her first training flight goes wrong, she is rescued by one of the greatest airships in the fleet, the Leviathan. Unfortunately, their mission doesn’t allow them to return her to training, and instead she is absorbed as one of their crew.

In addition to being divided by political factions, the world is also split into two groups- Darwinists, and Clankers. The Clankers rely on the power of machines to drive society and achieve their military goals. Darwinists have done away with machinery almost entirely, relying instead on fabricated creatures for their transportation and military needs, among many others.

Although seemingly as different as possible, Deryn and Alek are destined to cross paths and quickly become indispensible to one another.

Looking at this book initially, I probably wouldn’t have been tempted to pick it up off the shelf. The cover is dark and has a gorgeous steampunk feel, but screams “boy book!” to me. Fortunately, my friend over at Bookish MAY have been involved in the printing of this novel (and was lucky enough to meet Scott Westerfeld), and her opinion led me to venture into some totally new territory.

I am SO glad that I did! Firstly, the book is gorgeous. When I first started reading, I was slightly thrown off by “Darwinist terminology” about “beasties”, “elephantines,” “hydrogen sniffers,” and the lot. The illustrations by Keith Thompson are beautiful and really help you to visualize a London full of fabricated creatures, rather than mechanical technology. Our lead character Deryn is foul-mouthed and spunky, and I love her. When the going gets tough, she’s the first to fling herself into a situation to attempt to solve it. I also found myself fascinated by the idea that Darwin took his studies a step further, and discovered DNA, thus opening the door to genetic engineering almost a century ago (One of the more “steampunk” characteristics of the book- the juxtaposition of futuristic genetic science with turn-of-the-century ideals).

It took me a little while to warm up to Alek, who had the more sympathetic backstory but still managed to be pretty obtuse about keeping his identity hidden. When he meets Deryn, his character starts to develop a little more and I really like the rapport between them. I also looooove the cast of supporting characters that are running about- Count Volger, Dr Barlow, and the beasties inhabiting the Leviathan that have minds of their own.

I was telling Army Boy the other night that I could wait until our future kids were old enough to read this too, because I could see it blowing their minds. Fortunately, I have “Behemoth” on hand and can continue reading Alek and Deryn’s story immediately.

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