Saturday, October 22, 2011

Westerfeld, Westerfeld, Wilson

Leviathan
by Scott Westerfeld
Recommended Ages: 12+

I surprise myself when I look back on the thousands of books I have reviewed and see so few, if any, that really belong to the Steampunk genre. The whole "alternate history of Queen Victoria's era with armed airships and high-tech high jinks" concept holds an immense appeal for a fantasy and historical fiction buff like me, but somehow I have only grazed the edges of this flourishing field. Books I have read by Stephen Elboz, Kenneth Oppel, and R. L. LaFevers are about as close to that type of story as I have wandered, more by chance than by design. So when I saw the cover of this book, I thought I was going to really plunge into the world of Steampunk once and for all. I won't say "alas," but I was mistaken. This book takes the world of Steampunk into the next generation, and gives it a twist all its own.

The alternate universe in which Leviathan takes place seems to have split off from the Steampunk waveform at the time of Charles Darwin. Not content with disabusing half of Europe of their belief in a divine creator, the Darwin of this world founded a branch of science devoted to combining the "life threads" (read "what they called DNA before they discovered DNA") of different animals into fabricated creatures that had all kinds of uses. Britain, France, and other "Darwinist" aligned nations have gotten a head-start on high tech, using these artificial beasties instead of gadgets and motors. So by the dawn of what we call World War I, they have vehicles drawn by elephantines and wolftigers, bio-engineered krakens serving in lieu of submarines, and most exciting of all, living airships ranging from single-passenger "Huxleys" (giant, hydrogen-breathing jellyfish) to airborne battleships built around flying whales like the good ship Leviathan herself!

Enter Deryn Sharpe, an aviator's daughter whose only ambition is to serve in the Royal Navy of the sky. So she cuts her hair, puts on a boy's uniform, and enlists under the name Dylan, relying on her androgynous looks, her innate "sky sense," and her incredible natural courage to overcome the disadvantage of being the one girl among a midshipmen's berth full of boys. Then a female boffin (that's British slang for "scientist") comes on board with a load of luggage and a secret cargo meant to play a role in sensitive negotiations with the Ottoman Empire. Suddenly, thanks to weight restrictions, Dylan finds herself one of only two middies left on board.

Meanwhile, in the opposing half of Europe—the half devoted to developing machine might beyond the coal-powered whimsies of the Steampunk era—the so-called "Clanker" powers have been gearing up for a war to end all wars. Their armored vehicles now run on diesel fuel, but instead of rolling on tractor treads they walk on legs, like giant insects or spiders carrying battleships over land. Just as in the real world, hostilities are ignited by the assassination of the Austrian Archduke, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The twist is that the Germans poisoned the Archduke and his wife in the middle of the night, forcing their teenaged son Alek to flee for his life with a handful of loyal men.

Just when Alek's party makes it to the safety of a royal villa hidden in the Swiss Alps, Deryn's Leviathan is shot down by German fighter planes in the adjacent valley. With their airbeast crippled, an Alpine winter closing in, and German reinforcements on the way, they won't survive long... unless Alek risks exposing his safe haven, and his politically explosive family secret, to help them. What is it that brings these two desperate groups together? Necessity? Fate? Compassion? Fatal foolishness? Whatever it is, Alek, Deryn/Dylan, and their companions are about to share an adventure full of danger, daring, complex lines of loyalty and duty, and tremendous import for the life or death of millions of people. Their adventure only begins in this book, however, continuing in the sequel, Behemoth.

American author Scott Westerfeld is also the author of the Midnighters, Uglies, and Peeps series, and seems to specialize in writing fantasy thrillers about issues such as popularity, popular taste, and the perception of beauty. Married to Australian author Justine Larbalestier, he also writes contemporary ballet music and software while leading a forever-summer lifestyle, divided between New York and Sydney. Which, you know, kind of makes him my fantasy hero.

Behemoth
by Scott Westerfeld
Recommended Ages: 12+

In Book 2 of the Leviathan trilogy, an alternate-history version of World War I continues to play out between two great powers of Europe: the Clankers, whose war machines have advanced at an accelerated rate to include walking tanks and helicopter drones, as well as planes, submarines, and battleships; and the Darwinists, who have replaced mechanical technology with bio-engineered monstrosities such as the whale-sized, hydrogen-breathing airbeast Leviathan, known to our protagonists as home.

But the friendship between Alek and Dylan has become increasingly complicated. For one thing, Alek lets Dylan in on the secret that he is the rightful Archduke of Austria, heir to the elderly Emperor, and if he can hang on until the Emperor dies, he may be in a position to stop the war. But Alek is caught in a tricky situation when Austria enters the war on the Clanker side. Now he is at best a prisoner of war; if his secret gets out, he may even be forced into the role of traitor to his people. Meanwhile, Dylan hasn't yet figured out how to tell Alek that he is really a girl named Deryn, who posed as a boy in order to get into the air service and who now carries a hopeless torch for a young prince who can never, ever get romantically entangled with a commoner. And now their friendship and loyalties are put to the test in a diplomatic disaster over the Ottoman Empire's capital Istanbul, where the Clankers have all but sealed the deal on the Turks entering the war on their side, and where a lady boffin (i.e., scientist) is hatching a genetic surprise that may tilt the balance of power.

Things get out of hand before you can say, "Barking spiders!" Alek makes a reluctant escape from the Leviathans, only to get caught up in a popular revolution. Uncomfortable in his role as a freedom fighter (given that he is first in line for the throne of a vast empire), Alek nevertheless contributes the last of his Archduke father's hoard of gold and a genius for driving walking battle machines to the cause of keeping the Ottomans out of the war. He also obtains a new grandmother and the friendship of a beautiful female warrior. At the same time, Deryn has fallen to earth in a secret sabotage mission that has gone pear-shaped, and her only way out is through a furious and deadly battle that tests all her courage, loyalty, and strength. Caught between a prince who can never love her and an amorous girl she can never love (well, probably not...??), Deryn plays a crucial role in the fate of nations while risking, at every turn, putting her head in a noose for treason or mutiny. Nevertheless, her greatest test remains ahead, along with whatever difference Alek is meant to make in his alternate history of the 20th-century world. But to find out about that, you'll have to get the third book in this trilogy: Goliath (released in September 2011).

In my frank opinion, this is a smashingly entertaining series, sparkling with verve, derring-do, technological magic and scientific wonder. The main characters effervesce with personality, their catch-phrases and slang words are infectious, and their situation brims with whimsical humor, romantic tension, and a grim sense of fast-approaching obstacles to their happiness, and to the survival of millions across Europe—obstacles that threaten to be impossible to overcome. While the book is innocent of anything requiring an "adult" or "occult content advisory," however, I feel it is my duty to let concerned Christian parents know that among the conceits of Westerfeld's fantasy world is the assumption that Darwinism could (should? already has?) debunked the "superstition" and moral scruples of Christianity. One of the tensions between Deryn's and Alek's respective worlds is, after all, the spiritual repugnance that Clankers (as Christians) hold toward the Darwinists' "abominations." You may want to take this into account as you decide whether to gift these books to your kids, or in planning to discuss the series with them as you read it together. Either way, I believe this book will bring teens (and upward) enjoyment, enrich their inner world, and perhaps even stimulate them to explore the amazing worlds of history, mechanics, genetics, and the culture of what is now Turkey, all on their own.

The Chestnut King
by N. D. Wilson
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this final sequel to 100 Cupboards and Dandelion Fire, Henry York Maccabee girds himself for his final battle with the witch queen of Endor, knowing that if he fails, all life in the world he has learned to love will turn to ashes... beginning with those nearest and dearest to him. He must not lose, but how can he win when a drop of the witch's blood is eating away at his body and mind like an incurable cancer? How can a boy who, not so long ago, was a timid, insecure weakling, overcome such a powerful evil with nothing but a knack for baseball, a magical gift tuned to the key of dandelions, and a powerful new name he has only started to understand? How can he fight back against the combined might of an entire empire, an elite force of virtually unkillable killers, and an enemy who can find him anywhere he tries to hide—even in another world—even in his dreams?

Well, it won't be easy. In the most powerful stories, these kinds of things are as far from easy as anything can be. And this is one powerful story, emotionally moving at a deep level that tends to be difficult to move. It is an electrifying story told in vibrant language that sometimes teeters between poetry and prose. It is a work of pure fantasy that taps into truths from under spiritual sands that most modern writers seem loath to explore. It even made me cry until boogers ran out of my nose. You may find this hard to believe, but to me a book that can do that is a rare treasure. From Henry's determination to die for those he loves when it seems he can do no more, to his grandmother's touching farewell in a visit to Henry's dreams, this book resonates with Christian imagery without being preachy, sentimental, or even allegorical.

It's just a great story, give or take the longer-than-usual coda (two whole chapters and an epilogue after the resolution of the chief crisis) which, in all fairness, provides a satisfying glimpse into the surviving characters' ultimate fate. While, for me, the final floret on the proverbial cake-icing is the fact that my review of 100 Cupboards is quoted on the jacket—a proud achievement I showed all my friends, like a parent passing out baby photos—you may even feel yourself getting nostalgically choked up when the story turns full circle, back to the bus station in Henry, Kansas, where it all began. And so I congratulate Mr. Wilson on a most satisfying end to a great trilogy!

1 comment:

Robbie F. said...

Coincidentally, my review of "Dandelion Fire" was also included in the same post as two books by Scott Westerfeld. Hmmm...