starlady: (revisionist historian)
Epigraph: Small Beer Press is having a book sale! Everything they've ever published, as well as their forthcoming titles, are discounted, and portions of all sales this month will benefit Franciscan Children's Hospital in Boston. I don't know about you, but $5.95 for Kalpa Imperial is way too good to pass up.

Westerfeld, Scott. Illus. Keith Thomas. Leviathan. New York: Simon Pulse, 2009.

This is not the steampunk book I'm looking for, but it comes close.

Let's back up. It's the end of June, 1914, and Prince Aleksander of Herzhegovina is forced to flee for his life after his parents' assassination in Sarajevo (yes: his parents are that Archduke and Archduchess) along with only a few trusted retainers in...an imperial scout walker. (Yes, all the scenes in the walker reminded me of The Empire Strikes Back.) Meanwhile, British commoner Deryn Sharp takes on the name Dylan and passes herself off as a boy to become a midshipman in His Majesty's Air Service, winding up aboard H.M.S. Leviathan, the pride of the bioformed fleet. Alek and his retainers (including Count Volger, who is made of awesome) are making desperately for Switzerland, where they can wait for Alek's grandfather, Emperor Franz-Josef, to die so that Alek can make his bid to set aside the fact that his parents' marriage was morganatic and claim the throne. Deryn and her ship, in the company of the diplomat, zookeeper, Darwinist (she engineered the Leviathan) and diplomat Nora Barlow, are also making for Switzerland en route to their mission in Constantinople.

Leviathan is a cracking good read, and the illustrations by Keith Thomas are fantastic. More books should be illustrated, period. Westerfeld knows how to write suspense, and both Deryn and Alek are appealing protagonists (though Deryn is slightly more awesome than Alek, I have to say. It's not his fault, though; princes are sheltered). Equally appealing are Count Volger, who is one of those rare people who embody all the virtues of the aristocracy and few of its vices, and Dr. Barlow, who has a thalacine (aka a Tasmanian tiger) and who calls Lord Churchill "Winston" when she insults him. And as a Darwinist--aka a genetic engineer--she is known by her bowler hat, which practitioners wear in honor of the man himself, who in Westerfeld's world discovered not only evolution but DNA, and how to manipulate it.

So, there are some very cool things in this book, if you haven't guessed that already. I think one of the best things about steampunk is the space it opens up for potential critical engagement with history as it actually turned out, and Westerfeld does some of that in here, though he leaves some of the most critical insights, such as the environmental benefits of an empire run not on coal but on bioengineered animal power, by the wayside. That said, I'm uncomfortable with the fact that Alek's status as a protagonist renders the reader complicit in the narrative's imperial sympathies. Deryn and Alek are both unequivocal in their condemnation for the war, as is the narrative, which is sort of the easy way out--hands up if you think the loss of millions of lives was a good idea. Yeah, I didn't think so--but neither they nor the narrative are critical of the idea of empire per se. This is related to my other major problem, which is the book's lack of a clear antagonist. Also, tired incipient romance subplot is tired. Still, these caveats aside, the clear division between the Darwinist and Clanker powers, and the incipient hybridization of both Deryn and Alek, not to mention the sheer awesome that is Dr. Barlow and Count Volger, are more than enough to keep me interested for the next book, Behemoth. It's almost certainly going to have dragons, too.

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