Book review

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (2009)

Part 1 of the Leviathan series

Do you know what leviathan actually means? I didn’t. Not exactly. I had to look it up. It’s a word from the Bible. It means sea monster, perhaps a large whale. So that’s exactly right...the Leviathan is the greatest airship in the British fleet. Like all fabricated beasts created by the Darwinists it is a blend of life threads from different animals but the Leviathan is undoubtedly a whale airship:

The Leviathan’s body was made from the life threads of a whale, but a hundred other species were tangled into its design, countless creatures fitting together like the gears of a stopwatch. Flocks of fabricated birds swarmed around it – scouts, fighters, and predators to gather food. Deryn saw message lizards and other beasties scampering across its skin.

It’s pretty amazing. Deryn is spellbound. Anyone would be keen for a posting to serve on board such a magnificent beast, vessel, airship but Deryn has one small issue she needs to overcome. She disguises herself as a boy for the midshipman’s exams:

‘Well?’ she said finally. ‘Do I pass as a Dylan?’
Jaspert’s eyes drifted up and down, but he said nothing.
‘I’m plenty tall for sixteen, right?’ she pleaded.
Finally he nodded. ‘Aye, I suppose you’ll pass. It’s just lucky you’ve no diddies to speak of.’
Deryn’s jaw dropped open, her arms crossing over her chest. ‘And you’re a bum-rag covered in clart!’
Jaspert laughed, slapping her hard on the back. ‘That’s the spirit. I’ll have you swearing like a navy lad yet.’

Deryn learned flying from her Da. She has oodles of air sense. She’s quick witted and brave too. She earns her place on board the Leviathan. But it’s a turbulent time in Europe. Somewhere in Serbia the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated, and maybe, just maybe, this could be an opportunity for the Germans with their Clanker technology to start a little war. In response the Leviathan takes on board the mysterious boffin Dr Barlow for a top secret diplomatic mission to Istanbul:

As another female, Dr Barlow might notice a few odd things the other crewmen hadn’t. And she was a clever-boots, with all that science under her bowler. If anyone was going to guess Deryn’s little secret, it would be this lady boffin.
‘Brilliant,’ Deryn muttered, taking hold of the heavy trunk and hurrying for the ship.

Everyone it seems in this story has his secrets. Meet Alek. He’s actually Prince Aleksander. His parents have just been assassinated in Serbia. His father was heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, but not any more. So that makes Alek a nobody, but still important enough to be hunted by the Germans and the Austrians. Everyone would like to know where he is.

He is in fact whisked away in the middle of the night by a few loyal family retainers. They are implementing his father’s emergency plan. They have commandeered a Cyklop Stormwalker and are marching under cover of darkness all the way from Austria to Switzerland to hide in a derelict castle stocked with ten years’ worth of supplies until the war is over, when he can claim his rightful inheritance. That’s a long term strategy and perhaps it might work with other personalities. But Alek isn’t really a strategist. He’s more your man of action. So when the Leviathan is damaged in an aerial attack and comes down on the frozen Swiss mountainside Alek has to decide whether he’s going to hide or help:

‘What if they don’t leave?’ Alek said. ‘What if they can’t?’
‘Then they won’t last long,’ Volger said flatly. ‘There’s nothing to eat on the glacier, no shelter, no fuel for a fire. Just ice.’
Alek turned to stare at Volger. ‘But we can’t leave shipwrecked men to die!’
‘May I remind you that they’re the enemy, Alek? Just because the Germans are hunting us doesn’t make Darwinists our friends. There could be a hundred men aboard that ship! Perhaps enough to take this castle.’

It’s a moment of reckoning. Impulsive action or long-term strategy? Enemies or allies? Friends? It’s all in this story and I absolutely loved it. Wild adventure and high intrigue. Give it a go. You couldn’t be disappointed.

What can I read next?

It’s a trilogy. Read them in order:

  • Leviathan
  • Behemoth
  • Goliath

If you have enjoyed the world of Darwinist vs Clanker technology you might like to have a look at the Mortal Engines Quartet by Philip Reeve:

Or you might be interested in the alternative Oxford created by Philip Pullman:

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