Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Maybe I sabotaged this book for myself. I don't usually get worked up anticipating a new work of children's or young adult fiction - usually, they show up, and I go, "Wow, look at this!" I'm consistently surprised that chapter books written for younger folks actually engage me. You'd think I'd know better. Like, you'd REALLY think I'd know better.But when I heard that Scott Westerfeld - believable social economies, interesting ideas, nervy plots - was taking on the satisfying contrasts and textures of steampunk, I have to admit, I got excited.
And then, when I finally got my hands on it, the book, for me, fell a little bit flat. We follow Alek, only child of the archduke Ferdinand and his commoner wife Sophie, after his parents' assassination; and Deryn, a lower-class girl masquerading as a boy so that she can join the British air force. World War I is breaking out, and the German weapons - walking kerosene-burning tanks - are pitted against the genetically engineered organic fighting machines created by the British. Deryn serves aboard The Leviathan, a zeppelin-like airbeast that is mostly whale, while Alek escapes his ancestral castle in a two-legged armored walker, accompanied by his armorer and fencing instructor.
The details are, as expected, splendid, especially the delicate ecosystem that comprises the giant airbeast. There are castles and there are uniforms, scientists in bowler hats and a Tasmanian wolf (mysteriously called a Tasmanian tiger). Yummy.
But why, reading this, did I find myself wishing that I were instead reading Airborn again? There are a lot of similarities between the two books, and I kept remembering details of Airborn fondly as I read Leviathan. It's not a contest - obviously - and they're both exciting books, worth reading, and anyone who likes the one will likely enjoy the other. It's just that, if I had to recommend just one, I'd pick Airborn. Kenneth Oppel's descriptions of sensory experiences - running barefoot, moonlight and cold air - edge out Westerfeld's more hard-edged details.
Recently I've heard that Adam Rex is taking on the YA vampire novel, and I'm excited to see that. I expect that he'll punch a few holes in the "beautiful but doomed" vamp trope, a la The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks. If I find I am disappointed in that book, I'll know - it's just me.