Greetings, dear readers, and welcome to another installment of Books Without Panels, where we try to highlight novels of the non-graphic variety that belong on the shelf of any self-respecting nerd. Today, we’re bringing you a particular brand of geekdom that’s near and dear to my own heart: history. More specifically, an alternate history of WWI set in a world much like our own, but filled with genetically engineered beasts of war pitted against steampunk mechs ripped from the fever dreams of Nikola Tesla. Sound interesting? If so, you’ll definitely want to seek out Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy.
Our story opens up at the onset of World War I, following the perspective of two protagonists: Prince Alek of Hohenberg and Deryn Sharp. At the start of our story, our two heroes live in two different worlds, with Alek’s life turned upside down by the assassination of his father, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, while Deryn is forced to hide her gender to enlist in the British military. Through their eyes, we come to know the two sides of the conflict, the Darwinists and the Clankers.
The group known as the Darwinists are comprised of what were known in the real world of the Entente Powers, England, France, and Russia. In our story’s world, though, the people of these nations have adopted a fervent devotion to genetic engineering and the principles of evolution. As a result, nearly every aspect of their society is shaped around outlandish fabricated beasts of every shape and size which serve a vast variety of functions. These creatures range from diminutive messenger lizards to colossal beasts the size of battleships, this latter group including the eponymous Leviathan, a gigantic floating whale that serves as the series central locale.
On the other side standing in for the Central Powers, we have the Clankers, who have put their faith not in harnessing the potential of nature, but rather the might of machines. Having devised contraptions that are steeped in the wildest imaginings of steampunk fiction, the Clankers utilize weapons such as armored walkers that stride across the battlefield and Tesla cannons that discharge lightning across the sky. As the story progresses, it seems the Clankers always a new invention to deploy, and their cleverness never fails to impress.
With not one, but two imaginative cultures to discover, the world of Leviathan constantly brings the readers amazing new sights to see, many of which are beautifully conjured to life by the illustrations of Keith Thompson, who brings exquisite detail to the story’s most breathtaking scenes. Both the artwork and the writing give a depth to the world, with so many facets of it thought out and coordinated masterfully. And you never know when some new and spectacular is waiting on just the other side of the page.
Yet while the exotic elements steal the show, there’s also fun to be had in finding familiar elements from our own world. In Westerfeld’s universe, certain things still remain true, whether it be familiar faces like Winston Churchill or Nikola Tesla, or pivotal events like the assassination of Ferdinand. And while certain liberties were taken with the history (even beyond the presence of krakens and elephant mechs, I mean), it is quite fun to see real events ground out the fantastic nature of the setting.
At the end of the day, though, even the best setting can only a story so far, and such an imaginative world would be wasted without good characters to populate it. Fortunately, the Leviathan books have plenty of these as well, with characters that can be both clever and endearing. From the supporting cast, we have my particular favorites Count Volger and Dr Barlow, both of whom have razor sharp wits with tongues to match. The one who really puts the books over the top, though, is our female protagonist, Deryn Sharp. Disregarding most of the typical gender tropes, Westerfeld establishes Deryn as our story’s action star, giving her numerous scenes in which she gets to confront danger head on and charge in swinging. Time after time, her quick thinking and daring actions have gotten her and friends out of many a scrape. It is true that she does spend a fair share of time being aggravatingly lovesick, but this almost always just a lull before she gets back to kicking some Clanker ass.
As with any story, the Leviathan trilogy does have some problems that need to be addressed. Perhaps the most important of these is a lack of strong plotting. It could be said that while the setting and characters are fun and engaging, the plot itself can suffer from pacing problems; when the story hits a lull between big moments, it can be a chore to get through. This is especially true in the third book, which puts much of the larger picture on hold to focus more on a burgeoning romance (I won’t say who between, but I bet you can already guess). At the end of day, though, this problem doesn’t seem like a very big deal, as the wondrous nature of the world are more than enough to hook you in. Heck, even that romance I was sort of just complaining about, was actually pretty well handled, and is itself one of the elements that draws you in to the characters and their personalities.
When all is said and done, the Leviathan books are great way to lose some free time. Whether you just want be plunged into a vast, imaginative setting, stare wide-eyed at some amazing artwork, or read about biplanes getting into dogfights with steel-taloned hawks, you’ll be sure to find something to enjoy. Be sure to give it a try.