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.