by Scott Westerfeld
audio book narrated by Alan Cumming
Book 1 of Leviathan
Deryn Sharp is a commoner, disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She's a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.
With World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn's paths cross in the most unexpected way… taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.
I wish I could say that this book was a wonderfully amazing read... but the truth is, it didn't really quite pick up until about midway through. It's an intriguing world that Westerfeld has introduced us to, this alternate reality in Europe at the cusp of World War I. In this alternate reality, rather than the Central Powers and the Allied Powers, we have the Clankers and the Darwinists, respectively. The same countries make up these two fictional groups as the real life ones they are based on. Westerfeld's new twist in this steampunk fantasy, however, is to give the new technologies an interesting spin.
The Darwinists are so called because of their advanced sciences in DNA experimentation with animals, somehow being able to fabricate beasts into fighting machines during wartime. The Clankers, in contrast, have built "diesel-driven iron machines" as their weapons of war--mechanized walkers that kept giving me images of a less sleek, more clanky version of Gundam fighters of anime fame. Obviously they are not the same thing, as the one walker we get introduced to is a gigantic mechanism housing pilots, engineers, guns... much like a walking battleship or something.
Meanwhile, the truth is, it certainly took me a bit of progression into the story before I realized that the British side of the war were using fabricated animals as weapons and transport... and were called Darwinists. After the introduction of the Leviathan airship, I should have figured that out, but for some strange reason, it didn't click.
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 certainly made more sense as to why Deryn continuously referred to the flying machine she was piloting as "Beastie." And also why she spoke to the Huxley (which I later learned was some sort of jellyfish-like flying contraption) the way that she did. On the other hand, the Clanker side of technology made a bit more sense, even if the story line following Prince Aleksander was a bit lackluster in comparison to Deryn's side of the narrative.
I'm guessing either it was my lack of imagination, or the fact that I only really passively paid attention as the book was narrated to me. Then I discovered that the print book itself actually has illustrations, and the Leviathan airship does, indeed, have the likeness of a whale. It's pretty cool, and now I'm contemplating at least getting the rest of the Kindle books to go with my audio book experience so I can at least look at pictures...
But nevertheless, once everything started making sense, I started enjoying myself a little bit more.
I'm also guessing that I had found it easy for my mind to wander because aside from Deryn and Aleksander (and maybe Count Volgar and Dr. Barlow), none of the other characters particularly stood out as significant. In which case, I cared little for the other midshipmen who traveled in the Leviathan with Deryn, so while her interactions seemed fun, none of it really struck a cord with me until Dr. Barlow started getting more book time. Meanwhile, Alek's interactions with Klopp and Volgar were somewhat lackluster as well, even though you kind of get more book time with the three of them together, which should have increased their significance greatly. I just wanted to get back to Deryn's story whenever Alek's narration swung around.
Upon the ultimate meeting between Deryn and Alek that we'd been expecting since the beginning, the story finally started picking up. I'm almost sure that this had a lot to do with the fact that a lot of the side characters were delegated to the background and didn't really come to life for me. I can count on one hand the number of characters I recall that really meant anything to me at all as a contribution to this book's story.
Nonetheless, Leviathan slowly grew to be a rather creative world. I'm not as familiar with the timeline and events of World War I as I probably should be outside of a lot of superficial tidbit information. I'm considering re-educating myself just to see if I can pinpoint where fact and fiction in these books connect and diverge... That's just a thought though.
On a side note, at the end of the book, Scott Westerfeld himself gives an afterward about some of the differences between his fictional fantasy version versus the real events in history. It was an interesting bit of knowledge that continues to spark my interest.
I'm also not as familiar with steampunk fantasy novels, as they've never been the type of books I've picked up in the past. So this is a rather new experience for me as well.
On a final note, this book, I think was made a bit more enjoyable via Alan Cumming's narration, though I'm not opposed to admitting that it would have been less confusing had I maybe read it as a print book, illustrations and all. This will teach me to pay more attention to the narrator in the next two books, I guess. Though, for future reference for anyone else, maybe this book was meant to be read as a print novel instead of listened to as an audio book.