Thursday, February 25, 2016

Book Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

I've been meaning to review Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld for quite some time now. Not only is it a good example of young adult alternate history, but I received it as a Christmas gift from Sam McDonald. Since he was kind enough to read and review the gift I got him for Christmas, I thought it was only fair that I reciprocate.

Leviathan is set at the start of our timeline's World War I, but there are some differences as you could expect. For one thing, technology is highly divergent from our own. The Central Powers are known as "Clankers" for their use of mechanized war machines. I particularly liked the walking land ships that bring the power of a naval dreadnought to the front-lines. Although it appears some of these vehicles run on steam, hence why so many call Leviathan a steampunk story, some run on other fuels, like kerosene, which suggests a dieselpunk-level of technology, but I won't split hairs. They also have airships (of course), but nothing as interesting as what the Entente has.

You see the Entente are know as "Darwinists" for their use of fabricated creatures. The point of divergence for this timeline is farther back in the 19th century due to Charles Darwin not only discovered evolution, but also genetics and how to manipulate the DNA of creatures to create whatever type of animal you need. For example, pollution has become a thing of the past in Britain since fabricated animals (which often combine the DNA of several species) do all the heavy lifting instead of machines. The Darwinists have a biopunk aesthetic to them, which makes Leviathan at its heart a conflict between two different punk genres. Kind of ingenious actually, but does the actual story hold up?

As you may expect our story begins with Archduke Franz Ferdinand being assassinated in Sarajevo and the Serbians being blamed for it. Westerfeld makes some more changes, however, to the timeline by having the Archduke only have one son, Prince Aleksandar (Alek). He needs to be spirited away to Switzerland by his father's supporters on a Austrian walker (think AT-ST), because the Germans were actually behind the killings and wanted to blame the Serbs in order to start a general European war.

While Alek gives us the point of view from the Clankers, our other point of view character is Deryn (Dylan) Sharp. She is a girl who wants to join the British Air Service, so she pretends to be a boy. When the inflatable jellyfish she way flying is cut from its mooring during her first test, she is picked up by the Leviathan, a Darwinist airship which is primarily a flying whale with an entire ecosystem of other critters that not only help keep it aloft, but give it offensive capabilities (like hawks that trail wires between them to cut open airplanes, or the bats that vomit metal barbs...did I mention the Darwinists are weird?). She is brought on board and later becomes a full member of the crew, joining them on their secret mission to the Ottoman Empire. Eventually she and Alek run into each other and help forge an alliance between their two groups as war spreads across Europe.

I enjoyed Leviathan. The writing was good and the characters were likable. The Darwinist creations were ingenious and how their society would react to the fabricated animals (with some embracing them and others seeing them as abominations against God) was reasonably portrayed. A part of me wishes the Clankers were a little more fleshed out. It seemed they had a fetish for putting legs on anything that moved, regardless of how practical it is. This is actually cool when it comes to the land ships, but they even did it to smaller vehicles like trucks. Seems like you are overcomplicating something just for the sake of aesthetics.

People who really enjoy plausible alternate histories won't like Leviathan off the bat for the genetic weapons and steam-powered walkers that inhabit this timeline. That being said, Westefeld does play fast and loose with history even after unleashing his alien space bats. Besides the changes to the Archduke's children and death (he is poisoned, not shot), real people like Nora Barlow have completely different careers. Then there is the case of nations like Italy. Check out this map that came with the book:
It is a really pretty map, but if I am reading it correctly, Italy is a Darwinist nation. Italy, however, was technically allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary before the start of World War I in our timeline. While they stayed neutral at first and later came in on the side of the Entente, wouldn't that make them more like a Clanker nation in this universe? Whoever wrote the Wikipedia article for the book even suggested they "appear to be Clanker", but I didn't read anything in the book to suggest that unless the Wiki editor is pulling from some of the later books.

That may be where they got the info on the United States. According to the editor, America is half-Clanker in the North and half-Darwinist South...which doesn't make much sense if you know the South's history with Darwin. You would think this would make America a fully Clanker state and even an ally of Germany. Personally I feel Westerfeld didn't delve deep enough into the alternate history created by this alternate Darwin nor fully appreciate just how much society would change if it embraced a form of genetic manipulation in the 18th century that is more advanced then what we have in 2016.

The biggest issue with the Darwinists, however, is the creatures themselves, especially those used as weapons. To be honest, I am not sure how the Darwinists expect to win this fight. Their creatures are impressive looking from a design standpoint, but in general, flesh and claws don't do well against bullets and steel armor. Although the Darwinists do appear to use some Clanker-esque technology, I don't see their armies standing up against gargantuan walking tanks. It is sort of like the Yuuzhan Vong of the New Jedi Order series. Yeah there organic weaponry and armor sound cool, until you realize that the only reason the high-powered lasers, missiles and magic the good guys use don't work on the bad guys is because the writer says they don't work. Humans and animals, to be a tad simplistic, are just bags of juice which can be easily punctured by the right needle.

Now some might say "its alien space bats, let it go", but I don't think authors should use that as a cop out. One of the reasons why I enjoy stories like SM Stirling's Emberverse or John Birmingham's The Disappearance is that the authors tend to limit their intentional implausibilities to the thing that changed the timeline. The story then progresses logically from the point of divergence, without having to add new divergences for the sake of the story. A good implausible point of divergence creates the story. The story does not create implausible points of divergence.

Even with everything I said above, I don't want you to walk away thinking I didn't like Scott Westefeld's Leviathan. Despite being marketed to young adults, I still enjoyed reading it and I would have loved to see more stories like this when I was younger. It didn't shy away from adult themes or skimp on the adventure. It taught a little history even and I presume some younger alternate historians who read it may have been inspired to read more about the real World War I or some of the other topics mentioned in the book. I enjoyed the few illustrations that went with the book. They were well-drawn and didn't distract from overall story. Admittedly it was a short and easy read, but I can think of a few adults who may enjoy that.

If you don't mind implausible alternate histories or want to introduce you kid to your favorite genre, I can certainly recommend Leviathan. At its heart its an adventure story about two kids caught up in a war that is about to tear a continent apart.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update, a blogger on Amazing Stories and a Sidewise Awards for Alternate History judgeWhen not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the day when travel between parallel universes becomes a reality. You can follow him on FacebookTwitter and YouTube. Learn how you can support his alternate history projects on Patreon.


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  2. First of all, glad you liked the book.

    Italy is indeed a Darwinist nation. In book three some Mexican characters were testing out a manta glider from Italy, so there you go.

    As for the South being Darwinsts, that was to due with the North being industrialized while the South being agricultural. I'm torn on how I feel, on the one hand I've grown up in the South and I know first hand about its relationship to Darwin, but on the other hand it's meantioned that both sides adopted their tech during the Civil War, so maybe the South was willing to overlook that in hopes of winning. On a side note, that would be an awesome prequel series

    it was mentioned that the Clankers purposefully modeled their machines on the Darwinsts creations, and if you think they put too many legs, well, let's just say wait til you see what the Ottomans are like in book 2

    I know this I'll sound like a cop-out, but I always figured that the Darwinist weren't any more implausible than the Clankers, so I let the tech slide. That and it was just so awesome.

    Well like I said, glad you liked it and nice review

  3. The plot itself is engaging and suspenseful. There is no way to know what happens next, and I caught myself holding my breath several times in some of the more exciting scenes.

    When it comes down to it, I loved the book.


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