by Scott Westerfeld, illus. by Keith Thompson
Your teen may know Scott Westerfeld from his Uglies series or So Yesterday. He has a gift for imagining alternate realities, whether in the near future (as with So Yesterday and Uglies), a heightened present (as with Peeps, where he combined science and legend in a parasitic vampire tale) or a different possible past as he does in Leviathan. His novel opens with a bang, as 15-year-old Alek is swept from his room by moonlight on June 28, 1914, by Otto Klopp, master of mechanics, and Wildcount Volger, his fencing master, and ushered hastily to a Cyklop Stormwalker, literally a walking “engine of war.” “Alek” is short for Prince Aleksandar of Hohenberg, son of the Archduke Ferdinand, presumed heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Alek’s parents have been murdered, and when a full-out attack on the Stormwalker erupts, Alek realizes that his parents’ enemies want him dead, too: “This was his first real battle, when only hours before, he’d been playing with tin soldiers.” Meanwhile, Westerfeld also introduces Deryn Sharp, 15, who disguises herself as a 16-year-old boy named Dylan in order to enlist in the Royal Air Service. A storm interferes with her first test, and she’s rescued by none other than the Leviathan, a giant living, breathing airship.
The citizens of the early 20th century are divided between the “Clankers” and the “Darwinists.” The “Clankers” place their faith in machinery such as the Stormwalker, which literally moves on “feet” and protects its crew with an armored exterior and cannons. The Darwinists, in Westerfeld’s alternate past, have capitalized on Charles Darwin’s discovery of DNA, which has spawned the interbreeding of species such as the Leviathan, “made from the life threads of a whale, but a hundred other species were tangled into its design,… fitting together like the gears of a stopwatch.” Keith Thompson’s black-and-white illustrations handily capture the fantastic inventions of both groups. Even though readers will know that Alek’s and Deryn’s lives are destined to cross, their intersection is still thrilling, with plenty of air strikes, food shortages, and runs for their lives. At the center of it all lies a mystery about the Leviathan’s true purpose, transporting and incubating egg cargo of an uncertain nature for a powerful female scientist, Dr. Barlow. Westerfeld brings this riveting tale to a satisfying close while also planting plenty of subplots to explore in future installments. An afterward differentiates historical fact from the engrossing fabrications.