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Historians have often pointed to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the beginning of World War I. Germany was thrust into war with Austria-Hungary, and the remainder of Europe was left to pick sides (the rest you can read about in any history textbook). In LEVIATHAN, Scott Westerfeld presents an alternate history that not only explores the many dimensions surrounding the events of WWI but also mixes in the radical exploitations of Darwinism and the advancement of machines.

Prince Aleksandar Ferdinand’s loyal bodyguards have prepared for this night for over 15 years. The time would come, they knew, when Alek would be forced on the run and into hiding from governments and rulers that wanted him dead. Their escape comes in the form of a Cyklop Stormwalker, a real engine of war. Cannons and machine guns sprout out of the great mechanical beast, and suddenly Alek and his bodyguards are off on a journey that will test their nerves and battle-readiness.

In another part of Europe, we meet young Deryn Sharp, a girl who has wanted nothing else but to fly. Ever since her deceased father had taken her in hot-air balloons, Deryn has pored over aeronautical manuals and blueprints of airships. There is just one little problem: Great Britain does not allow girls into the air service. This does not deter Deryn, however, as she cons her way in by posing as a boy --- Mr. Dylan Sharp.

Unlike the clankers of Germany and Austria-Hungary that waste their time on machines, the Allied powers have invested their fortunes in the great crossbreeds that arose from Darwin’s studies. Darwin somehow managed to take the strands of life from different species and weave them together to form new and miraculous creatures. The greatest of these is the Leviathan, a hydrogen-filled blue whale and the greatest airship in the British fleet. Deryn Sharp --- or, rather, Dylan Sharp --- manages to finagle her way aboard.

Deryn’s and Alek’s fates collide in the most unexpected of situations. Both of them have secrets that, if revealed, could prove disastrous. Is Alek resourceful enough to keep himself alive in order to regain the throne one day? Will Deryn continue to fool all those around her, or will she lose that which she holds most dear?

Charles Darwin’s research has already created a ruckus in the scientific world, and Westerfeld takes it to the next level. In LEVIATHAN, supporters of Darwin view his genetically engineered creations as wonders of beauty. These new and improved creatures have created whole ecosystems that serve man in ways never dreamed possible. Not only is the giant blue whale able to fly in the air, it’s also self-supporting and viewed as a marvel of the natural world.

Those who rely on machines, however, view these crude monstrosities as forsaken and godless. Not only do these beasts not have souls, they are also unnatural and immoral. Mechanical engineering is the focus instead, and vast new war machines are able to walk on two legs, traverse long distances in a short amount of time, and hold enough artillery to destroy anything in their path. Machines, not soulless monsters, are the wave of the future.

Whichever side you join, Scott Westerfeld and illustrator Keith Thompson make it worthwhile. LEVIATHAN is just the beginning of a new steampunk genre series that blends the future and the past.

Reviewed by Benjamin Boche on March 17, 2010

by Scott Westerfeld