In my last post, I recommended a book called Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld. Westerfeld is one of my favorite YA writers. He’s written the Uglies and Midnighters series, and this latest series is set in 1914 in a steampunk version of World War I. Behemoth is book 2 of this series.
In Leviathan, the first book in the series, British airshipman Dylan Sharp meets Austrian commoner Alek when the airship crashes in the Swiss Alps. In fact, Dylan is actually Deryn, a teenage girl posing as a boy so she can serve in the British Air Service. Alek is actually a Prince Aleksander, the heir to the Austrian Empire, who had to flee his home after both of his parents were killed.
Austria and Britain are not only on opposing sides in the war. In this world, the British are “Darwinists” which means their scientific innovations are all designed around genetic engineering. They use living things as weapons, tools, and transport. Even the airship is a living beast, with every genetic trait designed for that purpose. The Austrians are “Clankers” which means all of their technology is mechanical. The two sides fundamentally disagree on the role of science and technology and each are uncomfortable with the others’ innovations. I found myself siding with the Darwinist philosophy, as using living things seemed somehow more “natural,” but Westerfeld raises some complicated questions in the book about both approaches. For example, the Darwinists treat their “creatures” humanely but refuse to name any of them, lest they stop seeing them as tools and more as pets. And while the mechanical transport seems cold and unresponsive, at least no living creatures are hurt in the process.
In the first book in the series, the Leviathan picks up Alek and his team of loyal companions (who are a combination of guardians and mechanical experts). The two sides distrust each other but have to work together to survive, although Alek and his friends are considered war prisoners of the British. At the beginning of Behemoth, the airship enters Istanbul (called Constantinople by the uninformed British). Istanbul is neutral in the war and their location and resources make them a key ally for both sides. While Germany is trying to enlist the Sultan’s support, there is political unrest among the people of Istanbul. Britain needs to build an alliance with Istanbul while attacking the Germans, and Alek needs to escape from the British so he can support his country and family in the war.
One thing I really like about Westerfeld is I think boys and girls (or men/women of course) would like his books equally. These days the market for YA books is all about girls but Westerfeld always tells a story with really unique characters and settings and interesting storylines around both genders.
Another thing I loved in this book was the history. Yes, it takes place in an alternate world. But Westerfeld introduces real historical characters and describes true tactical strategies and ship battles. He takes the time to explain in an afterword exactly what was historically accurate so I could look up those ships and battles and learn more.
I found Behemoth MUCH stronger than the first book. The first book needed a lot of time to introduce the setting and characters, and the story felt a little secondary. Behemoth’s story has non-stop action plus great character development for Alek and Deryn, who struggle to maintain their friendship when being friends might be considered treasonous. Also, Deryn has developed feelings for Alek, who has no idea she’s a girl. The book has amazing, exotic descriptions of Istanbul, fantastic creatures, and interesting new characters. The book also has beautiful cover art and illustrations by Keith Thompson. While I found Leviathan a little “basic”, Behemoth was breathtaking. This may be a series aimed at seventh graders, but I enjoyed every minute.