BEHEMOTH by Scott Westerfeld
Scott Westerfeld created a fascinating world out of the ashes of what was World War I (The Great War) in the real world. He peopled his Leviathan trilogy with real heroes and heroines young readers (and the young at heart) could get behind and root for, and he seasoned it with the wonderful spice of steampunk. The resulting concoction is a steaming mass of adrenaline and wonder, and the pages of his books almost turn themselves.
The sheer imagination of his world blows me away. It’s a living, breathing thing – except for the parts that clank, ratchet, and blow off steam. This is the kind of adventure Edgar Rice Burroughs and the pulp writers of the early 20th century offered, and I was consumed by it. Of course, most young readers have never read those books, but they’ll be drawn to this trilogy the same way I was to John Carter of Mars and Doc Savage.
The story picks up immediately and throws our courageous little band in the thick of the action again. Deryn (still in her guise as a male midshipman aboard Leviathan) is fighting for her life in no time at all. She’s also getting more attracted to Alek, the young Austrian prince who has been on the run for his life since the assassinations of his parents.
Westerfeld amps up the science in this one as well by throwing in Tesla cannons, genetically modified bullfrogs capable of memorizing lengthy conversations and repeating them back, diving suits made out of living creatures (cool and gross at the same time!), and a genuine feel for the exotic otherworldliness of Istanbul during the final days of the Ottoman Empire. The reimagining of the Orient Express is the bomb.
Once again, Westerfeld finds a way to separate his heroes and send them off on individual missions. I love this approach because Deryn and Alek each get to play to individual strengths, and the missions are much different. Alek is trying to survive and set up political connections, and Deryn is doing espionage missions that are hair-raising.
The books have a large cast of characters, but they’re all easy to keep track of because Westerfeld has made them all distinct and self-motivated rather than just channeling them into and overall effort. It’s this constant threatening and rebalancing of agendas that keeps the pages turning just as much as the action and adventure.
Throw in a young Turk woman who may or may not know Deryn’s secret, which all too many people seem to be guessing these days – except for Alek, and you’ve got a suddenly volatile mix in this one.
As always, Keith Thompson’s illustrations bring the story to life in added dimensions. He’s one of the best steampunk artists working these days, and I wonder who comes up with all the imaginative devices most: Thompson or Westerfeld.
I only hope that after this trilogy finishes that the two will do more stories in this fascinating world or one like it.