Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Heather's Book Review: Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

Steampunk as a genre has been around since the 1980s, but only recently has it begun to make a noticeable splash in teen literature. Last year, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan was one of the novels that helped it make that splash, and now he follows it with a much-anticipated sequel, Behemoth.
Before I begin my review, a primer:
“Steampunk” is a subgenre of the science fiction and alternate history genres that takes elements of the Victorian, Edwardian, and sometimes World War I eras and then mixes them up into something a bit more fantastic than the eras as they actually occurred. Steampunk writers, illustrators, fashion designers, and tinkerers (because steampunk is much more than a literary movement) especially like to play with the technology of the era from which they draw their inspiration. This is why just about every steampunk work in existence places a high value on machines and invention, or at the very least features a character sporting goggles.
The technology in Westerfeld’s Leviathan universe centers around the Darwinist and Clanker forces, which respectively take the place of the Entente and Central Powers, who battled each other in World War I. In the Leviathan universe, Charles Darwin (of the aptly named Darwinist countries) has done much more than suggest the theory of evolution; he has actually discovered the inner workings of DNA, and his discovery has led to the creation of artificial animals built for specific purposes. One such example is the Leviathan of the title, a battleship that is essentially a giant hydrogen-filled whale engineered so that it can function like an airship, complete with rooms and corridors for its crew to rush about in. The Clankers, on the other hand, find Darwinist technology disgusting and prefer their own mecha-like walkers and battleships, the product of machinists rather than biological scientists.
In the Leviathan novel, readers were introduced to Deryn (or rather, Dylan) Sharp, a girl so determined to be in the sky that she disguises herself as a boy to join the Darwinist British Air Service, where female soldiers are not allowed. On the opposing side of the conflict is Aleksandar Ferdinand (Alek for short), Prince of the Clanker Austro-Hungarian Empire, running for his life after his parents are assassinated by German forces. Due to his lineage, he may be the only person able to stop the war, and his enemies know this and want him out of the picture. A series of twists lead both Deryn/Dylan and Alek to become occupants of the massive Leviathan. It is here that Behemoth picks up the story.
In Behemoth, the Leviathan finally completes its task assigned in the prior novel, which was to deliver a certain Darwinist creation to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in the hopes of improving Great Britain’s relationship with said Empire (The Sultan is not pleased with Britain, as the country borrowed one of his warships and then refused to give it back, fearing that the Empire would join the war against them and the rest of the Darwinists). Once the ship reaches its destination, though, it is plain that Clanker forces have exerted some significant influence over the empire. The British Darwinists’ peacekeeping strategy goes horrendously wrong. Now aiming to prevent any further Clanker influence on the Ottoman Empire, Dylan is sent on a secret mission, which also goes awry in many ways. Alex’s identity as Prince, formerly kept a firm secret, is also revealed, which requires him to escape from the Leviathan and go on the run yet again—but without the help of the loyal followers who had helped him the first time. 
This plotline makes for a fast-paced, action-packed novel that is certain to please fans of the original Leviathan. In terms of its steampunky detail, though, Behemoth easily surpasses its predecessor. A lot of the fun of the story is found not in its action but in the machines that drive the action. Much of the this action revolves around the threat of a Tesla Cannon—a massively destructive lightning gun capable of bringing down the Leviathan—and Westerfeld’s electric writing makes this cannon seem as tangible a threat to the readers as it is to the characters. (Special Note: Westerfeld gets extra steampunk points for this, as steampunk fans will love just about anything involving the work, or work-that-might-have-been, of Nikola Tesla. That is why he gets his own subgenre of steampunk, known as Teslapunk.) The machinery of the Ottoman Empire, influenced as much by the mechanical Clankers as the organic Darwinists, is also a marvel to read about and to look at in Keith Thompson’s illustrations. Instead of being cold, steely machines of war like all other Clanker inventions, the Ottoman machines take the form of intricate, mechanical animals, not unlike this one, which Westerfeld noted on his blog as the inspiration for one of the most memorable walkers in the novel.
Interestingly, though the book is titled Behemoth, the Behemoth itself only seems to be a small part of the novel’s plot. Readers know that the Behemoth is important as part of a Darwinist military strategy, and that, as its name suggests, it’s a wonder and terror to behold, but by the time it actually appears in the story, our attentions are so distracted elsewhere that it’s appearance seems only minor. This was the biggest disappointment in the novel. However, since this disappointment arises from the reader’s active concern for every character other than the Behemoth, it may hardly qualify as a disappointment at all. And when the let-downs are that insignificant, it’s a sign that the book is one worth reading.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tara's Book Review: Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry

I’m kind of over the whole supernatural trend, but there’s still something about a good zombie book that grabs me. Rot & Ruin is an incredibly-crafted book with gore, adventure, and a surprising amount of heart. It tells the story of the world 14 years after the zombie apocalypse, in which humans have figured out how to survive, but must still coexist with a massive zombie population. Benny Imura’s brother, Tom, is a “closure specialist” who travels into the Rot & Ruin to find his clients’ loved ones and put them out of their misery. When Benny turns 15, he realizes that he must join the family business and travels with Tom beyond the fences. He learns horrible truths about the humans in his community, considers the humanity in zombies, and discovers that his brother isn’t who Benny thought he was. When the search for a mysterious girl results in horrible consequences for Benny and Tom, they must venture into the Rot & Ruin to save their friends and protect their town. I was really impressed by this book. It creates a world where the line between good and evil is blurry, where zombies aren’t just mindless monsters, and where family and friendship trump everything. It’s the first book in Maberry’s Benny Imura series, and I can’t wait until the second one comes out!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Lisa's Book Review: Jane by April Lindner


This is a retelling of the gothic classic Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, only updated and way cooler! After the sudden death of both her parents, bookish Jane Moore is forced to drop out of college and take a job as a nanny for the daughter of mega-rock star Nico Rathburn (the Mr. Rochester character). Though the plot and characters are very similar to Brontë’s original, the story has a more vibrant setting—present day New York City and environs. Also, instead of an aristocratic family, the Rathburns are a scandal-ridden celebrity family straight out of the tabloids.

Here’s what our library catalog has to say about the book: “An irresistible romance interwoven with a darkly engrossing mystery, this contemporary retelling of the beloved classic Jane Eyre promises to enchant a new generation of readers.” If you haven’t read the original, this retelling may inspire you to do just that—I hope so!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

On the Library's Roof with Susan

Last month I had the chance to go on the roof of the library. If you’ve ever wondered what Spartanburg looks like from the top of 151 S. Church St., you’re in luck, because I took a camera!
Broad Street

S. Church Street

 Intersection of S. Church and Kennedy Streets

The view (and photos) would’ve been prettier if it wasn’t so overcast that day, but I think I might have been blinded if it were sunny. The roof of the library is white and reflects sunlight, so I needed my sunglasses even on a cloudy day!