Scott Westerfeld’s steam punk trilogy featuring Alek, the future heir to the Hapsburg throne and Deryn, a brave, cross dressing airship officer, comes to its end in ‘Goliath’. I feel bad for writing a review of ‘Goliath’ that isn’t as positive as my reviews of ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Behemoth’. Those two books provided so many fun reading times and I feel like I’m doing the whole trilogy down somehow, as it wraps up, by not heaping love on ‘Goliath’. I still think the world that Westerfeld has created is ingenious and bursting with invention, but I just didn’t enjoy the plot and pacing of ‘Goliath’ and it didn’t quite provide the outstanding ending that fitted with the technical sharpness of the earlier books in the trilogy.
In my review of ‘Behemoth’ I said that Westerfeld had created a clever second novel and pulled off the magic trick of creating a mid-trilogy novel which places the over arching plot of the trilogy in near complete stasis, but is so full of life that the reader is barely conscious of the novel’s desire to delay the main action until book three. ‘Goliath’ also has a specific function that it must perform as the final book in this trilogy: it must send its characters on to their final physical destiny and propel them towards the conclusion of their story. Although, it contains the necessary dynamic narrative to move its characters and events forward to that ending, its narrative drive is hampered by several battles, which slow the novel down. It was hard for me not to compare the two novels when ‘Behemoth’ is a crisp, compact story without a superfluous plot point in its entire 542 pages and makes such a success of working with the limitations imposed by its place in the structure of this trilogy, while ‘Goliath’ almost seems to fight against being the most effective version of itself.
Don’t get me wrong, Westerfeld writes a good battle. He has plenty of opportunities to prove that writing a clear, exciting battle, or adventure scene is one of his top five skills, because the characters are required to travel extensively in this novel to set up the finale of this series and that travel has to more interesting than ‘and then Deryn and Alek went to Russia to pick up Nikola Tesla’. ‘Goliath’ is packed full of adventures and these episodes are thrilling, especially when the airship encounters the famous Russian fighting bears. Unfortunately, plot points like Alek and Deryn’s encounter with Japanese fighting forces, sometimes feel rather disconnected from the novel’s main goal of advancing the main plot. The characters move on rather quickly and these battles feel like they have no consequences, even though logically we know that after Deryn and Alek leave, these events must play out to a wider conclusion.
Despite the fact that I think some of Deryn and Alek’s off plot excursions make the novel feel bloated, these trips are interesting as individual episodes. Ale and Deryn witness a battle involving Britain’s Japanese allies and end up spend time with Sancho Panza, as he gathers troops for a revolution. And not every world expanding, action piece lacks relevance to the wider plot, for example Deryn’s cross dressing disguise is revealed to a character, when she is treated for a wound at Sancho Panza’s camp, where privacy is hard to come by and that has ramifications for her personal storyline. I liked the range of detail that was provided about Westerfeld’s steam punk universe by these parts of the novel and the fact that the book took readers outside of the Western European focus that is so often present in books based on World War One. I just think too much of this detail and world expansion is unnaturally crammed into this final book. Maybe a fourth book would have allowed more space for this exploration and a focused, sharp final book. I can’t see into parallel universes, so who knows?
‘Goliath’ is undoubtedly full of Westerfeld’s usual steam punk inventiveness and around the rather stuffed content, there are a lot of fun, sci-fi details (a two headed imperial messenger eagle, Russian fighting bears and the Kappa) in ‘Goliath’. Bovril, the perspicacious lorix and Dr Barlow’s lorix are both back and they’re chatty. There is even some cool stuff centred on the electrical inventions of Nikola Tesla, which may appeal to people who know their science history better than me. I don’t want to accidentally make it sound like I’m warning people away from the whole trilogy just because the final book felt a little hinky to me, because the imagination that this novel shows off is kind of glorious, even occasionally it feels like every last steam punk idea possible has to be shoved in before Westerfeld has to abandon this world.
As you might have gathered from my reviews of ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Behemoth’ I have been SO worried about how Westerfeld would bring Deryn and Alek together. I’m happy to say I was so satisfied with the way this romantic storyline concluded, that I had no problem leaving Deryn and Alek in each other’s arms at the end of this novel. I thought of some minor quibbles, for example it seemed that as soon as Alec found out Deryn was a girl, he realised she was in love with him. I mean he was right, but it felt almost like a foregone conclusion, that friendship must really indicate love if you’re a girl, who has disguising her gender and formed a deep friendship with a boy. However, I thought the ending was just perfect for Deryn (unsurprisingly, I was most worried about how a straight, romantic conclusion would affect the girl disguised as a male midshipman). Even though Deryn realises she has to give up her job flying the Leviathan, she avoids being shoved back into the skirts that she dreads and maintains her cover as a boy, because Professor Barlow is able to offer her a job at London Zoo (where the real shit gets done). Alec never challenges her right to keep up her disguise and seems happy to keep their romantic relationship going, despite the fact that they can’t go public until Deryn gives up her disguise 1. Love. This. Ending.
This final novel in the Leviathan series is fun and works hard to transform the reader’s understanding of this particular conflict and of war in general. The novel departs from the cast, characterisation, setting and ‘moral judgement’ of typical WWI stories on many occasions. Lilith, who is a bisexual, female revolutionary fighter, briefly reappears. Alek is once again shown as a pacifist and regrets killing, which is radical for a male member of a royal family. Deryn, our female, cross dressing, military hero, keeps her trousers. This is some new, exciting WWI stuff, is what I’m saying. If I had a criticism of how ‘Goliath’ wraps up all the exciting, newness this trilogy brought to the world it would be that I was a little disappointed that the ethics of the different technologies weren’t explored in quite the depth I’d expected, before the trilogy concluded. Alek and Deryn live in a world where animals are used as air ships and mechanical technology is clearly mostly used by the opposition, even though the novels have striven to complicate that position. Despite all the rollicking fun and running around, ‘Goliath’ did occasionally leave me feeling that I needed more depth to be able to leave this world satisfied.
Even though ‘Goliath’ wasn’t quite what I was hoping for in the final volume of the ‘Leviathan’ trilogy, I feel a little sad to have reached the end of Deryn and Alek’s story. In her review of ‘Goliath’, Ana from The Booksmugglers (who kindly sent me her spare advanced reader copy) says:
‘On its own, Goliath may not be as good as its predecessors but it is a satisfactory conclusion to what is overall, an absolutely recommended, awesome series. I know I am going to miss waiting anxiously year after year for an instalment, I am going to miss this crazy-cool world and above all I will miss the characters, especially my girl Deryn who is a barking incredible heroine.’
I don’t think I can improve on that closing statement. Good luck Deryn, we’ll miss you.
1 I’m making an assumption here. Westerfeld hasn’t included anything that explicitly makes me think his sci-fi world contains, or does not contain homophobia, so I’m basing my understanding of whether two people who look like boys could openly be together, on the real WWI time period.