Leviathan and Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld (or: perfect books are perfect)

There comes a moment when you’re reading Harry Potter when you stop thinking about Quidditch, about quaffles and beaters and chasers and bludgers, and you just know it.  Which is not to say that, suddenly, you have every single rule figured out and know exactly what’s happening in every second.  It’s that you just accept Quidditch – you know enough to know enough and then, like that, you’re sailing along in a match.

I think this is the moment when you well and truly fall in love with Harry Potter – when you become fully immersed in Rowling’s universe in a way that you never really shake after that.

I thought of that moment when I stopped trying to figure out every single scientific and anatomical detail about how the giant, genetically created flying airship/animal known as the Leviathan works or was created.  At some point, and I don’t remember exactly when it was because it never works like that, not really, at some point, I stopped concentrating and worrying about all that and was, instead, just aboard the Leviathan.  I just knew.

And that’s the moment I fell well and truly and permanently in love with Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, a steampunk, historical alternative universe set in 1914, and the richly dense fictional world he’s created: a world filled with fantastical beasties and brave girls disguised as boys and labyrinth political intrigue and revolutions and exiled princes on the run and danger and adventure and huge, elaborate mechanical devices and, of course, true love.

Sure, I’m still waiting for my letter from Hogwarts.  But now?  Just as much?  I’m waiting for my recruitment papers from the Royal Air Service.

I’ve talked a little about how hard I tried to love Leviathan and how, time and again, it just didn’t work for me.  (and how it was the superb audiobook versions that really pulled me in) But my teens?  They have loved Leviathan from the beginning and the love it, passionately, across every reading demographic you can imagine: boys who are into steampunk, girls who love romance, reluctant readers, advanced readers, readers who hate sci-fi, readers who’d never try historical fiction.  And while that made me very happy, it still wasn’t doing for me.  Too much jargon,  too hard to really get into.  But I kept trying, because my teens kept insisting.  They would entreat me time and again:  “Please, we need to discuss it!”  So this is the series, above all other I have encountered in my 4 years working with teens, that the teens had to sell me on first, simply because they had to talk about it.

And that, I think, speaks to the key of the appeal of the Leviathan series.  There’s all this complicated world building, advanced machinery, behind the scenes political machinations, and feats of great derring-do and adventure.  Not only are those things that get teens turning pages, those are things that get teens talking.  Those are the things that make Westerfeld’s Leviathan universe one that feels lived in and the things that make you want to live there.

I don’t particularly want to spend this whole post going over the minutiae of the plot.  For one thing, no explanation really does the rich plot justice; it really is the kind of book that unfolds in the best ways like a puzzle with each detail weaving a larger picture.  For another thing,  because of the complexity of this universe, you’d just get caught up in a boring plot-point recitation.  “And then she, but then he, but also don’t forget in this universe that …”

But I do want to talk, briefly, about our two lead characters: Deryn “Dylan” Sharp and Prince Aleksandar Ferdinand of Hohenberg.  And what utterly lovely lead characters they are!  How fully rounded, how realistically flawed, they are!  How easy it is to care for them, to root for them, to feel for them!  Deryn, the common girl who pretends every day to be something she isn’t, who changed her name and joined up with the Royal Air Service so she could fly.  Deryn, who is an excellent midshipman, always up for dangerous missions and routine duties. Deryn, who must learn to rely on others, to temper her recklessness with thoughtfulness, who like so many teens struggles with who she is and who everyone thinks she is.  Deryn, who finds herself immediately drawn to Alek from the moment they meet, who becomes his best friend and fierce ally because it’s the right thing to do as she also finds herself, much to her great surprise, falling in love with him.  And who wouldn’t love Alek?  Alek, who is brave and loyal and good in the best sense of the word.  Alek, who opens his mind to the new world of the Darwinists and wants justice and right to prevail.  Alek, who has no idea that his best friend is a girl in love with him.  Alek, the Prince on the run who is learning that whatever his destiny might be, he has control over it, he doesn’t just have to sit passively and let the world happen around him.  (again, another plot line that is particularly resonant to teens.)

These are great characters, the kind you feel like you truly know, the kind that feel real.  Deryn and Alek take alternating chapters to tell their stories and this is another brilliant move on Westerfeld’s part.  Besides the fact it’s yet another element that keeps the pages turning, it also gives their stories and characterization freedom to grow independently and gives readers a chance to really live inside each of their perspectives.

Today is the publication date of Goliath, the final volume in the trilogy.  I was lucky enough to get my hands on an ARC back in June (there might have been crying and flailing involved…) but I won’t spoil the ending here except to say that it’s a fitting conclusion: full of everything that makes the series great, as well as new characters, a particularly salient “big” question for teens to ponder, and a few surprises too.  In case it wasn’t clear enough, this series is highly recommended as a first purchase for all public libraries.

And now it’s YOUR chance to dive into this world for the first time and I hope you’ll feel the same immersion and exhilaration I did, that same love.  Go to your library or local bookstore and pick up a copy of Leviathan  today – now the series is complete, so you have no excuse to jump right in.  You won’t regret it.

While it’s true that I might not be able to tell you everything about how the Leviathan works as an airship, I know how it works as a story, as a fictional universe that springs to life and lives in your heart.

I know that it flies.

4 Responses to “Leviathan and Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld (or: perfect books are perfect)”

  1. Jennie

    The library copies of Goliath are currently “Being Processed.” I’m guessing it’s a week before they hit the holds list (and there are holds on almost every copy.) I’m not sure I can wait that long.

  2. sylvia mcadam

    I, too, was unable to read the series until I got the audio. And I just cannot wait to get this one. It was your post about the audio that pushed me to get it and I thank you for that!
    When I went with my 15 yr old to DragonCon on Labor Day in Atlanta, there were sooooo many SteamPunkers there. I think, for the first time, that they may have outnumbered the Vampires.
    It is hard to describe to people what an incredible novel series this is because they *do* get caught up in that whole ‘what is steampunk’ thing. And you are right, you just have to believe that it is real. But once you do….

  3. Thayla

    Angie, thank you for reviewing such great books. It helps me out in purchasing! Love you!

  4. Jodie

    Great to hear so much enthusiasm coming from the kids you see for this series. I was lucky enough to borrow an ARC copy of Goliath and now I am just like your teens pestering everyone to get reading because ‘We need to discuss this!’