Ever met an Artsie who could create six-legged steam-powered steel war machines and genetically engineer a whale airship ecosystem? Meet Scott Westerfeld. His newest books, Leviathan (the first instalment) and Behemoth (the second instalment) are the latest and greatest in the era of “Steampunk” fiction—that is, Alternative Universe (AU) historical sci-fi, where steam power has been exploited to spawn more than just a choo-choo train.
The Leviathan series is brilliant for its rich political history and culture. The story starts with the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, which has catapulted Europe into World War I. Sixteen-year-old Aleksander Ferdinand, the only son of his parents’ left-handed marriage (a marriage of unequal rank), is on the run, armed with a handful of loyal men and a giant, two-legged, steel Stormwalker. Meanwhile, British “Darwinist” Deryn Sharp has disguised herself as a young midshipman and finds herself aboard the Leviathan, the whale airship.
The appeal of Alek’s spoiled naiveté and Deryn’s crude boy disguise aside, Leviathan has a remarkable cast of trope-free characters. Take the lady scientist who’s not just intelligent and haughty, but also knows how to use her charm to manipulate people around her—or the bicurious character who does nothing stereotypically homosexual. (Yes, people like that actually exist.)
But the main reason why I’m in love with this series? Leviathian is of the very few science-fiction books I’ve read where science hasn’t been used with excessive flair or arrogant carelessness to create time travel, artificial intelligence, and allow access to the fourth dimension. Westerfeld’s science is both creative and succinct. His machines are powerful but faulty, his breed of mutated animals can only take talking and walking so far, and his range of scientific innovation is very realistic for his narrow historical timeframe.
And in case you were wondering, Westefeld is a philosophy major. Yes, geniuses like him actually exist.