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A sea battle, a cannon that shoots lightning bolts, a daring escape, a chase, mysterious beasties, and the political machinations of World War I are just some of the plot concoctions author Scott Westerfeld weaves into his dense new novel, BEHEMOTH.

This follow-up to LEVIATHAN continues the saga of young prince Aleksandar Ferdinand and his small army of loyal protectors. He is hunted by the people of his native Austria-Hungary, held captive by the British, and courted by the revolutionaries of Istanbul, also known as Constantinople to the Brits. Alek is trying to reclaim his rightful place as heir to the throne, but that hinges on a letter from His Holiness, the Pope, explaining that he is deserving of the crown. The position would give Alek the ability to try and right dreadful wrongs conceived by his family (most of whom are now dead) that have led to the war engulfing Europe.

Those who have read LEVIATHAN will stand a better than excellent chance of following the intricate web of political and emotional intrigue Westerfeld has devised here. If the first book in the series is not on hand, readers will have to persevere through this one in order to understand much of what happens and why. It’s possible to appreciate BEHEMOTH without reading LEVIATHAN, but it’s not advisable because so much of Book One underlies the plot in the second installment. But still, the ultimate goal of restoring Alek to the monarchy is left for another time, which means that BEHEMOTH involves many twists and turns for Alek and his loyal band. And then there’s the fascinating background in which the novel is set.

Westerfeld says, “That’s the nature of steampunk, blending future and past,” and his current series certainly pushes the conventional envelope of both principles: steampunk and “blending future and past.” His take on steampunk begins in the generally accepted foundations such as steam-powered war machines and modern technology invigorated by historical facts, but he adds a very unique conflict element of “man versus society” as he blatantly examines the eerie possibilities of genetic experimentation. The “beasties” invented for BEHEMOTH strike chords of anxiousness in readers as the critters are bred specifically to fly, speak, spy and attack in some truly imaginative ways. His technique of imposing human capabilities to cross-bred animals is disconcerting yet highly captivating, and is sure to intrigue audiences.

Westerfeld pioneers in the realm of steampunk with BEHEMOTH. While better consumed after reading LEVIATHAN, the wonderful illustrations by Keith Thompson are extremely helpful in staying on target, although a glossary akin to what Tamara Pierce includes with her unique settings would have been useful. If steampunk pushed to new limits is of interest to you, then you will cherish this book.

Reviewed by Joy Held on October 18, 2011

by Scott Westerfeld