Airships! Beasties! Clankers! Darwinists! A Review of Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy Thus Far

Okay, so there is no way to go about reviewing Behemoth if nothing is said about Leviathan, even if both books stand on their own well enough. Except if you read Behemoth first, you’d want to go right back out and get Leviathan anyway, to make sure you got the full experience.

Leviathan is set at the beginning of World War I, with the death of Archduke Ferdinand by Serbs. As such, we can’t exactly pin it down to the era of steam technology, so it’s more fittingly dieselpunk. Nonetheless, the historicity and scale of tech retrofitted into the past fit nicely into steampunk conventions.

Within this history, it’s obvious that Westerfeld has done his homework, down to little details that add a delicious accuracy to enhance certain scenes, while being very clear where he has strayed. As such, there isn’t one break-off point between this story and recorded history, but a blend of both.

The two major factions within the new geopolitical landscape are very reasonably set: in the bits of Europe that is Catholic, the predominant tech is mechanical, with hulking machines that are deeply reminiscent of HG Wells’ land ironclads. The British, by contrast, are Darwinists, with the conceit that Darwin discovered DNA and developed the technology to harness it, to the point that the British fabricate their own biological ecosystems in a fashion that serves their purposes.

This is how we get Leviathan, which is, to put it bluntly, a flying whale.

And not just any old flying whale ala Fantasia 2000, but a living, breathing ecosystem of its own, high in the sky, that can make its own food and generate its own internal environment to allow the other fabricated creatures within it breed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Leviathan opens with Aleksander, awakened by his new guardian, Count Volger. He is the son of Archduke Ferdinand; just as the archduke’s assassination in real-life triggered a military conflict that was long in coming, so too, does the assassination trigger a huge change in the life of his fictional heir, who now finds himself on the run for his life.

Deryn Sharp is our next trope: a girl who desperately wants to join the army, smart as a whip, with all the necessary knowledge to match. She disguises herself as a boy to take the examinations that will set her on course a career as a midshipman on board the Leviathan.

Well, we know where this is going to go.

Alek’s emotional journey is every bit as important as his physical one, in dealing with his parents’ deaths, the un-learning he has to do of his aristocratic education to hide himself, the shock of losing his privileged life, and his politically-charged decisions. Underneath it all, he is ultimately likable, relatable, with a strong sense of goodness that leads him to save Deryn’s life when they do meet.

Now, ordinarily, in a girl-disguises-herself story, there’s a lot of overwrought pondering on gender roles and differences that such characters have to take note of. Westerfeld does some of this, obviously, sneaking in lovely little critiques of traditional masculinity at the same time, but Deryn’s life isn’t dominated by these concerns—she’s also Midshipman Dylan Sharp, and has duties like taking care of the creatures on board, escorting the boffin Dr. Nora Barlow, and taking care of Dr. Barlow’s pet thylacine. (The thylacine is a now-extinct tiger of sorts which would have existed during this time period. You didn’t think everything’d be made up in this story, would you?) This gives Deryn depth and intrigue beyond her disguise, making her a compelling character beyond the obvious reasons.

Alongside the protagonists are a strong cast of varying importance, such as Count Volger, Alek’s faux-antagonist and advisor, who alternately affirms and deflates Alek. Dr. Nora Barlow, based on a real person, possesses airs of superiority that annoy Deryn, yet also has an incredible intellect that mark her worthy of the important mission that drives the Leviathan’s course towards Istanbul. Both of them have their own loyalties to bigger causes than Alek and Deryn, with their own secrets, manipulating each other the best they can under the circumstances.

The voices of the story also achieve another balance between the comedy of two different kids’ lives clashing and the larger backdrop of war. In the third year of my undergrad, I took a course on Modernist novels, and within it, the anxiety of the modern period showed through in the fiction we read from the period, particularly those featuring the Great War, which shattered the perception that modernity, technology, and progress would lead to a rational, more enlightened, thus peaceful, future. Those novels were for grown-ups who took themselves very seriously. In Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy, those anxieties are more clearly illustrated, and since they come about due to the characters’ direct involvement in battle, it is harder to ignore.

Okay, from here on out, it’s all about Behemoth. Spoilers for Leviathan will ensue, so if you haven’t read it yet, go no further!

I had some reservations going into Istanbul in Behemoth, but Westerfeld handles the history and cosmopolitan culture of the city beautifully, magnifying it for the purposes of the story without exoticizing it. The politics are a bit too simplistically drawn, as Westerfeld has adjusted the political facts of the region; still, he has done so in a self-conscious way that doesn’t seek to erase the underlying history (also, he’s no Tariq Ali). The characters in Behemoth are a bit more colourful, and a wee bit caricatured, though not in a racialized manner. This makes me hopeful for the next book, which will be set further east in Japan. Personally, I think Westerfeld could have afforded to give the new secondary characters more screentime, even though they won’t be seen in the next book.

As in the first book, the limited third-person voices of the story alternate between Alek and Deryn smoothly, making it clear whose perspective it is with chapter changes. The language is accessible without talking down to the audience, and wholly believable. And of course, the pains of adolescence, at least on Deryn’s side, with regards to romance are assiduously given their dues. The dramatic irony will either amuse or annoy; I found it utterly hilarious, YMMV. A love triangle within this book adds the perfect touch to the YA romance.

The illustrations are, of course, gorgeous. Keith Thompson has done a brilliant job detailing both mechanical and biological worlds in the books, and the pictures add a great deal to the story that text alone would have missed out on. He has also done a great job with Deryn’s gender-bending, creating a portrait that could go either way. (The new cover for Leviathan shows Alek, but before I got Behemoth, I harboured a hope that it might be Deryn as well. Alas, Behemoth’s cover model is unmistakably a girl. So much for a butch Deryn.) Kudos to editor, publisher and artist for picturing what is essentially a queer kiss in a mainstream young adult novel, too! (No, I’m not going to tell you the context, read the books yourself, dammit.)

Westerfeld has crafted an amazing story, accessible to children and adolescents, but with gems for adults as well. These books are the sort a child might read as a grand adventure story, and when they return later, a little older and wiser, and they may well be struck by how stark its themes truly are. There is a lot of care taken in explaining the underlying tensions that would erupt into the Great War, using simple enough terms to illustrate the political nuances in a way that will probably send a kid or two into a lifelong career in political science. The same is done for natural sciences.

This series is shaping up to be a gem across genres. And frankly, I can’t wait to see what happens in the finale.

In the meantime! Dear fandom: For Christmas, I would like Alek/Deryn fic. Or, Volger/Barlow fic. Whichever tickles your fancy. I will bake you cookies in return. Love, Jha.

Jaymee Goh writes Silver Goggles, a steampunk postcolonialist project that explores issues of race and representation in steampunk, and is also the holding space for her MA project.


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