I’ll always admit to being a sucker for a pretty cover, and the pictures on the front of Leviathan grabbed me right off. Then I started reading. Five pages in, I bought it, took it home, and spent the rest of the night finishing it. The next chance I got, I purchased the next two from Amazon.
The central conceit is clear and attractive: The world is filled with two rival philosophies and technologies: the Clanker countries of Germany and Austro-Hungary with their walkers and mechanized war machines, versus Darwinist Britain and their allies’ genetically engineered “beasties”, such as whale/jellyfish airships and parrot/lizard messengers. Other nations have their own mix of the two systems depending on their alliance. Battlesuits vs. weird science!
Leviathan’s story revolves around two central characters of opposite background and loyalties. One is Alex, the son and heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After his father, the Emperor Ferdinand, is murdered, Alex is forced to go into hiding with a single battered mech and a few retainers. On the other side is Deryn Sharp, a young girl who wants nothing more than to serve on one of Britain’s flying battleships, and so disguises herself as a boy named Dylan. Through a series of events the two bump into each other, and then the real fun begins.
Alex is focused and too conscious of his responsibility and vulnerable status as the possible ruler of a nation at war, while Dylan is having the time of her life learning about working on a living war machine and the amazing weapons of the Darwinists while keeping her secret safe.
The second book, Behemoth, follows their adventure to the officially neutral Ottoman Empire, who the English are trying to woo over to their side from Clanker influence. However, things go badly when the Alex and Dylan are separated on dangerous adventures and a nosy American reporter gets involved. The seeds of revolution are sown, and the world inches closer to war. Afterwards, the crew and Alex are told their next stop will be Russia and the Far East on an important trip that may end the war, and “Dylan” discovers that her feelings for Alex may be deeper than she expected, but that he can never return them given his royal class.
Goliath opens with the airship Leviathan flying over the steppes of Russia en route to pick up a passenger who it is rumored may hold the key to stopping the war. After discovering an area of terrible devastation, Alex and Dylan meet the mystery man: Nikola Tesla, who says he has built a weapon capable of destroying any city on earth at his command. The two protagonists are torn: Alex sees it as a way to end possible bloodshed, while “Mr” Dylan Sharp is less sure. After a stop off in Japan where Teslas’ machine shows its amazing power, they are ordered to neutral America (Clanker North, Darwinist South) where he will build a full-scale model of his new machine under the watchful eye of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. However, after arriving they receive word that the Germans are determined to stop Tesla’s machine from being built at any cost…
I really enjoyed this series. I’ll confess when I started reading and recognized that they were YA books I was a trifle hesitant, since I’d pushed myself through the first Twilight book to considerable mental distress. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Westerfeld never talks down to his audience, and his characters are clean and complex. Dylan/Deryn and Alex are equal stars of the books, with Alex’s tactical skills and aristocratic training nicely balancing her fearlessness and keen observations. She’s never made to be less competent or intelligent, and the friendship between them grows very naturally, as do their reactions to each new revelation and crisis. The amazing illustrations by Keith Thompson are a treat in and of themselves and give a fun “penny dreadful” feeling to the story.
The weirdness of the world around them is likewise smoothly introduced through their eyes, and the danger of being involved in a world at war isn’t minimized because of the youth of the protagonists. Of course, you know neither one will be killed, but you’re on the edge of your seat regardless. The way their relationship grows and matures throughout the trilogy is likewise well handled, and the inevitable “discovery” of Deryn’s true nature is handled in a fresh way.
There’s plenty of action too, and I really enjoyed the descriptions of the various beasties and machines. I’ve never had a great interest in technology and so would likely be a Darwinist if I had the choice. All in all this series is extremely well written and entertaining for readers of any age.