bookgazing: (i heart books)

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.

Some romantic spoilers )

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.
bookgazing: (i heart books)

‘Behemoth’ is getting love everywhere and I’m not about to spoil the party. All the things I enjoyed in ‘Leviathan’ were present in this second steam punk novel by Scott Westerfeld and I also discovered a few things more things to squee over.

Here are a few of my favourite things about ‘Behemoth’ )


The Booksmugglers
Bookish Blather
Jawas Read Too
Forever Young Adult
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Reading steam punk reminds me how exciting it feels to tear through a book where dramatic things are always happenings. At the moment I feel wary around adult fiction that promises big adventures, because I keep picking up novels where the adventure just isn’t that exciting, or the battle scenes rock, but the characters are unbearably pretentious.

‘Leviathan’ by Scott Westerfeld, showed once again that young adult novels can handle adventure narratives well and that creating an explosive battle scene is an endeavour of craft.

‘Leviathan’ begins in 1914, just after Archduke Ferdinand and his wife are murdered. Their deaths are the catalyst for the First World War, but in Westerfeld’s version of events their deaths also affect their young son Alek, who must flee from powerful, political enemies. In his family’s Stormwalker (a small war craft that walks on two legs) Alek and his two tutors journey to the neutrality of Switzerland. They are never at ease and must constantly fight for their lives.

In London, Deryn Sharp attempts to enter the Air Service, dressed as a boy. This is a steam punk novel so the British Air Service is a little different, the air craft are live pre-fabricated creatures, manmade whales and jellyfish, which need hydrogen to keep them afloat. The creatures were originally produced by Darwin and only Monkey-Luddites and I’m sure you can get a sense of how others view them from that slang phrase, object to these beasts being used for the good of the British Empire. Deryn’s first flight test is to board a Huxley, which is like a large, nervous jellyfish, but with happy memories of flying with her dad she’s sure she has the natural ability the Air Service values. An unexpected storm sweeps her off course and she is found by the ‘Leviathan’ airship and taken aboard as a midshipman. The crew of the ‘Leviathan’ will eventually come into contact with Alek and the two characters become wary allies, then friends as shared experiences allow them to bond.

Westerfeld’s steam punk world is exactly what I hoped to explore when I came up with the idea of reading steam punk for a month. It seems I prefer steam punk societies where the new technology is an active part of the story and technology plays a significant part in ‘Leviathan’. A political divide is drawn between form Clanker powers (countries that favour machinery) and Darwinist civilisations (countries that advocate using pre-fabs). Just as religion created many real political alliances throughout history, technology determines which countries fight against each other in ‘Leviathan’. The two different forms of technology also become homes to the main characters, as Deryn and Alek live in their war ships and this allows the author to explore the mechanical logic that makes the technology work in detail. Having the characters live in the technology, provides a way to make technology personal and important, in the same way that setting your character’s lives on a ship can make the way a ship works more interesting. There’s plenty of imaginative technological detail to enjoy, like bats that excrete metal and the differences between classes of Clanker warships, but the way the technology works is explained simply for younger readers so even technophobes like me can understand how the pieces fit together.

As ‘Leviathan’ is written for younger readers (the book jacket recommends from 10 years old and up) the sentences were compact and the paragraphs were often exceptionally short, which I guess is designed to hold the attention of younger children. The fact that I didn’t feel anything lacking because of the writing’s compact style opened my mind to reading more of what Americans call middle grade fiction, which I’ve always assumed is a bit too simplistic to satisfy adult readers (I know, I know, I am converted now, sorry about that). The style was actually better suited to battle scenes and adventure episodes than the longer sentences similar adult fiction often uses. Books full of action should be purposeful, with tight description, so the simpler style of writing for younger readers really fits with extremely active narratives. The writing in ‘Leviathan’ reminded me of some of my favourite action/adventure novels from my childhood, which were fun and always felt like they made every word count , like Tamora Pierce’s ‘The Song of the Lioness’ series,. The freshness of the writing and the ease with which Westerfeld relates the excitement in a scene is invigorating and it makes me question why other writers weigh down their action scenes.

The only part of the book I disliked was the love story, which emerged at the end of the book. I have a multitude of feelings about this one small plot point and most of them are irrational. It’s irrational for me to hold the fact that Deryn contemplates giving up everything to protect Alek’s secret against ‘Leviathan’ but I do. By establishing such a strong friendship between Deryn and Alek, Westerfeld has set up valid textual reasons why Deryn would risk everything to protect Alek’s secret, but part of me sees Deryn falling in love with Alek, only to be transformed from a spunky, brave character into a plucky girl, whose bravery now comes from sacrificing what she wants for the good of others. It’s a little matter as Deryn realises her feelings for Alek at the end of the novel, but my mind just goes to these kind of things when I read. It’s irrelevant to say I think their friendship doesn’t need to become a love story (well it does, deal with the book at hand not the book you wish existed), but I don’t think it does and there it is. I’ll probably get over it.

That’s my review then. Now I’ll just go and wait patiently for the second book to be released (oh only later this year, well that’s much better than 2011). ‘The Leviathan’ will arrive in the Ottoman Empire and we’ll all find out what is in the eggs the ship is carrying. Can’t wait!

Other Reviews

Villa Negativa
Necromancy Never Pays
The Zen Leaf


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October 2014

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