YA Backlist: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Whatever happened to steampunk? According to some sources, this subgenre of science fiction that incorporates industrial steam-powered machinery from the 19th century in alternative histories was “over” in 2010. Others might say last year.

In this YA Backlist post, I’m taking a look back at Scott Westerfeld's young adult contribution to steampunk, "Leviathan." To be honest, this was one of three or so steampunk novels I read — but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the subgenre or Westerfeld’s novel. I do always find something fascinating about a “what if” premise.

Westerfeld reimagines World War I with steam-powered iron walkers and genetically altered animals. Caught in the middle of the global conflict are Aleksander Ferdinand, orphaned prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Deryn Sharp, a girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can serve in the British Air Service.

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by Lawrence Public Library Staff

Alek doesn't know who to trust when he's told the news of his parents' death. His mother having been of common blood, many see him as unfit to rule and even a threat to the empire, so he must flee in a Cyklop Stormwalker with his “mechanicks” master and fencing instructor. However, they don’t make it far before they have to test the defenses of the armored, steam-powered walker.

Meanwhile, Deryn, going by Dylan, manages to prove herself capable through a freak incident involving a Huxley — a jellyfish-like creature that flies by filling itself with hydrogen. She winds up on the Leviathan, a gigantic living ecosystem that doubles as a military aircraft, where she must continue to prove her usefulness on top of keeping up her disguise. When the Leviathan must make a crash landing in the neutral Swedish territory, Alek's and Daryn's paths cross, which only leads them to further adventure.

"Leviathan" is a fast-paced, adventurous novel. It’s a great introduction to the steampunk genre and an intriguing look at what World War I would have been like with steam-powered machinery and advanced biogenetics. In addition to the author's writing, illustrations by Keith Thompson throughout the pages help bring the images and scenes of the story to life. I encourage you to give it a try.

— William Ottens is the cataloging and collection development coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library.