By Scott Westerfeld and illustrated by Keith Thompson
Simon & Schuster, 2009
$19.99, ages 12 and up, 438 pages
A young archduke is rushed from his bed chamber in the middle of the night on the pretense of training for battle, only to discover that his parents have been poisoned to death and he's on the run from assassins in this inventive sci-fi novel by the author of the teen trilogy the Uglies.
In the style of steampunk, Westerfeld reimagines the battle lines of World War I with anachronistic technologies. It is the Victorian era of steam machines; society is divided into aristocrats and commoners, and women are forbidden to be soldiers. But now, Clankers (or fabs) are using war machines resembling living creatures to battle Darwinists, who fight back with beasts fabricated into machines.
The novel, the first in a series, moves between two parallel plots, the escape of Prince Alec, a Clanker, from his homeland, the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, to a castle hidden in the icy cliffs of the Alps, and the daring adventures of Deryn Sharp, a Darwinist girl, who rises to the ranks of middy in the British Air Service by posing as a boy. By mid book, their two lives intersect in an exciting rescue attempt that pits a hydrogen-breathing airship made from sea creatures against AT-ST-like walking machines.
As the story begins, Prince Alec is taken in the night by his fencing instructor Count Volger and master of mechanics Otto Klopp to hide in a mountaintop castle after his parents are assassinated by an operative sent by former ally Germany. Though Alec initially suspects he's been kidnapped by his teachers, he quickly realizes that Volger and Klopp are his only allies when a German dreadnought attacks the walker they've fled in.
Meanwhile, Deryn has begun posing as the boy Dylan to finagle her way into aviator training and during an exercise gets swept away over London in a runaway hot-air beast, only to escape midair into another flying beast that resembles a zeppelin, a behemoth hydrogen-breathing Leviathan fabricated from a whale. But when the Leviathan goes down in battle in the Alps near Alec's castle, an uneasy alliance is forged between Alec and a Darwinist doctor transporting eggs to the Ottoman Empire.
Though Deryn's transition to middy aboard the Leviathan was a little confusing, this was an enthralling adventure, owed in a large part to the inventive workings of Westerfeld's beasts of battle and animalistic machines, and Thompson extraordinary sketches, which allow you to wrap your head around what these fantastical creations might look like. I found myself as fascinated by Westerfeld's imagination as I did by the beasts and machines he fabricates on the page.
Click Scott Westerfeld on my links to see Thompson's Darwinist-Clanker map of Europe. View Simon & Schuster's trailer of Leviathan below!