Illustrated by Keith Thompson
Simon Pulse, 2009
Leviathan is nominally a steampunk novel for young adults, although in reality is it actually a mixture of biopunk and dieselpunk. It is the first in the Leviathan Series, which is quite popular at the moment, following the success of Westerfeld's earlier YA series beginning with Uglies.
It is an alternate history of World War I, in which the Germans and their allies have developed mechanical walkers and the Allies have become quite skilled at biohacking. Other than that, however, the history sticks as close to history as is practical; on June 28, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated, throwing Europe into war. In the story, they have a semi-legitimate son, Alek, who finds himself hunted by his own troops, along with those of Germany. He and a handful of trusted retainers find themselves on the run in a stolen Walker, in a desperate run to escape into Switzerland before they too are assassinated.
The other protagonist of this novel is a 15-year-old girl, Deryn Sharp, who disguises herself as a boy in order to join England's air force. By an series of fortunate events, she finds herself aboard an air-whale, the biopunk equivalent to a zeppelin, just as war starts to break out. She is reasonably happy with this outcome, as this means that everyone is too busy to ask questions about her exceptionally smooth chin and modesty in the bunk-room. However, it quickly becomes apparent that their mission is one of utmost importance and secrecy, and one that makes them a target for all of the German's opening sallies.
While this is intended as a work of science fiction, the 'science' in this case is heavily laced with magical potency. Animals are easily engineered; their life-threads can be magically combined and manipulated to create almost any sort of animal. Darwin's researches into genetic engineering brought great power to the UK, allowing them to end the industrial revolution in favor of a biological revolution, creating oversized elephants and mammoths for public transportation and shipping, lighter-than-air whales and squid-submarines for navel warfare, and talking lizards and birds for communication. Meanwhile, the continent has developed giant fossil-fuel powered mechs, from bipedal Stormwalkers to giant eight-legged land dreadnoughts the size of battleships.
Although the setting and story are slightly over the top and don't introduce much that hasn't appeared in other books by other authors, this is still a fun, engaging, and easy read, and it does a very nice job of bringing a number of Xpunk elements together in an exciting story for young adults. Given that the Xpunk field is still fairly sparse (even after all these years), a series like this is exactly what it needs. I think that it is a clear bonus that this is not really a dark and depressing book, unlike many more traditional steam/diesal/etc.-punk stories, but I expect others will find this traitorous to the Xpunk idiom.
It is worth noting that this novel is illustrated, in the traditional manner of ~1 illustration per chapter. Keith Thompson is perhaps best know for his previous work in helping to design the dieselpunk FPS/RTS game Iron Grip; his highly detailed and textured sketches are an excellent addition to the book. I see just a touch of anime in his art, with androgynous 10 head figures with diminutive noses being the standard. His mechanical monsters also seem slightly awkward, the biological monsters being much more well-done. His art is well-worth checking out if you like SF art; his site can be found at KeithThompsonArt.com.
Sadly, I have not yet read any other books by Scott Westerfeld, so I cannot say how this novel compares. It is a quite enjoyable book, fast moving and engaging. It reminds me of a lighter version of the His Dark Materials series, although Leviathan is both more fun and more hackneyed.
There are two more books in this series: Behemoth and Goliath. Given the popularity of the series, there may well be other books set in the same world yet to come.