"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change." Charles Darwin
The world of Leviathan
set in 1914 is divided into Darwinists and Clankers. The Darwinists have evolved genetics to make animals more useful to humans. The Clankers have built their society on machinery technology. I love maps and Scott Westerfeld provided a great map to show how his imagined world has been divided up between the two camps of thought.
Prince Aleksandar Ferdinand awakes one night to find that his world has been turned upside. He had an uncertain future to begin with being the son of the heir to the Austria-Hungary throne; and yet, because his mother was of common blood the marriage was deemed a left-handed marriage which does not allow Alek to inherit his father's title. Franz Ferdinand
His father and mother survive the initial assassination attempt that in our reality sparked World War One. In Westerfeld's world they survive only to be poisoned later that night at a dinner party. Alek is whisked away by men loyal to his father in a Stormwalker, a two legged war machine. Despite the fact that he has no legitimate claim to the throne the Germans are intent on neutralizing him. Emperor Franz Joseph is old and the Germans fear he will recognize Alek as his heir. They would prefer someone more likely to ally with their war aims. In the book A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889Frederick Morton speculates that Rudolph's suicide (Franz Joseph's son) was actually an assassination by Germany fearing his anti-Germanic rhetoric. It makes sense, but suicide was in fashion in Vienna in the 1880s and there is very little evidence to support the theory, but that said given what is at stake I wouldn't be surprised that Germany had a hand in eliminating Rudolph. Germany has always played too large a role in Austrian politics. In Westerfeld's world instead of a young Bosnian being behind the assassination of Ferdinand the Germans are the originators of the coming conflict. Alek finds himself in a desperate race to reach the Swiss border before the German's can capture him.
Our other hero is Deryn Sharp. She has just joined the British air service. Because she is a girl, and girls are not allowed to join the military, she has disguised herself as a boy named Dylan. She is assigned to the Leviathan
a living whale flying ship. Despite being in constant peril of discovery she shows bravery and intuitive cunning that makes her a valuable midshipman. Of course Deryn and Alek are on a collision course and their first meeting is less than ideal. Despite the fireworks and the misunderstandings they are quickly becoming friends.
Another real character masquerading in Westerfeld's world is Nora DARWIN
Barlow who has become critical to the upcoming war effort as England needs more advances in genetics to have a chance against the Clanker armies of Germany. She is the granddaughter of Charles Darwin. Nora Darwin Barlow
Miss Barlow's constant companion is a Tasmanian Tiger, an animal that creates nervous moments for those around her. Unfortunately in our reality the last Tasmanian Tiger died in captivity in 1936, a species that was a casualty of man versus nature. I liked Miss Barlow and hope she continues to be a key part of the plot in the subsequent books.
The book is littered with amazing line drawings that really adds to the experience of the book. I wish more adult books had illustrations. There are a plethora of amazing, starving artists in this country that could use the work. We are a visual culture and I don't believe it takes away any literary value to a book to be enhanced with an artist's conception of the writer's creation.
I will be reading book two Behemoth . Westerfeld left me hanging in the skies over Europe with our heroes on a secret mission to the Ottoman Empire, and the German's trying everything in their arsenal to bring them back to Earth.