Leviathan, a 2009 novel Young Adult by Scott Westerfield, which recasts World War I as a conflict between “Darwinists”, who use genetically-engineered animals, and “Clankers”, who rely on giant mecha. Usually, I find YA an interesting and enjoyable read, but I struggled with this book.
The story revolves around Deryn, a cross-dressing midshipman known as “Dylan” on a massive, genetically engineered flying whale known as the Leviathan, and Aleksander, “Alek”, the son of Austrian heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Deryn gets herself onto the Leviathan just as war is looking increasingly likely, and winds up flying around over Europe. Alek is woken in the night by his tutor, who tells him they need to escape. He later learns that his parents have been killed, probably by the Germans, and that they are now trying to kill him. Deryn’s and Alek’s paths converge on a glacier in Switzerland, but because this is the first of a trilogy which if Adult Fiction would probably just be one novel, not much plot has actually happened by the end of the book.
So, first of all, the good: Deryn and Alek are good characters, and the adults orbiting around them all work as well. Deryn/Dylan is interesting because she is repeatedly shown as competent and dutiful, with only a dash of the kind of rulebreaking which makes for good POV characters and terrible midshipmen. She is a good role model, not because she’s acting outside the prescribed gender role, but because she’s competent at the day to day aspects of her job. It’s good to see her skill and quick thinking in action. Alek (who, I can’t resist pointing out, is totally fictional despite Franz Ferdinand having serveral perfectly good historical children) reads realistically as a teenager. Leviathan is aimed more at boys than girls, and I can see how Alek at the controls of the giant mecha robot would be appealing wish fulfilment for that demographic. The dynamic of adults and children is well played out. The kids are frustrated by being treated like children, and the adults alternately bemused and frustrated by their pranks.
The bad, then. This book had no historical flavour at all – it was sort of generically set “before the present time”, but with the robots and the monsters, the WWI setting was largely superfluous. Whenever actual history didn’t suit, it was thrown out. Franz Ferdinand survives Gavrilo Princep and is poisoned in his bed. The Germans clearly did it. Alek is Franz Ferdinand’s only child (and secret heir to the Austrian throne courtesy of Papal dispensation). None of these were remotely necessary changes. Leviathan doesn’t deal with the day-to-day of the conflict at all – I understand the rest of the trilogy doesn’t either, possibly because the inclusion of flying beasts and giant machines would have completely changed the face of the war anyway. Trench warfare, for example, would have been completely impossible. Winston Churchill is called “Lord Churchill” several times, which irritated the bajeezus out of me.
The “Clanker”/”Darwinist” thing is interesting, but reduces an incredibly complex series of alliances into a simple us/them divide. Historically, part of the tragedy of WWI was the close links at every level between the countries involved; in Leviathan this is reduced to a simple binary division where a country’s allegiance if they enter the way is immediately visible and definite. I don’t know whether this binary gets more complex in the second and third books, which I understand are set in Clanker-but-currently-neutral Ottoman Turkey.
I am not the target audience for this book, but I generally enjoy YAF, particularly fantasy YAF. I think this book is actually aimed a bit younger than YAF. I found it simplistic. The characters didn’t grab me because they didn’t have interesting flaws. I couldn’t get onboard with the genetic engineering of the Darwinists, which is wildly beyond the level of capacity we have even today. The book doesn’t deal at all with the thorny ethical issues of genetic engineering and the duty of care for the animals so created. Some people are shown as being uncomfortable with the beasts, but only because they’re “ungodly”, not because creating a giant flying whale filled with hydrogen might represent an issue for the quality of life of the animal. The passages about the Leviathan made me horribly uncomfortable, and I didn’t get the cool factor at all.
Of course, one doesn’t expect full adult complexity from a YA book, particularly one on the younger side of YA. But I don’t think someone reading this book would even get an idea what life in WWI was like. It is a steampunk fantasy adventure which is I suspect is only set in WWI because it is the war most proximate to the Victorian era, with the scale to make it exciting. It doesn’t really engage with the the historical Edwardian era, the politics of the war, or the experience of the war at any level. The history is perfunctory and un/intentionally inaccurate, even excluding the necessary changes to accommodate the fantasy elements. As a fantasy adventure, it may appeal to kids in the right age group, but as a book set in WWI it is profoundly disappointing.