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Book Reviews
September 13, 2010 posted by ashley

Leviathan – Scott Westerfeld

Prince Aleksander, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battletorn war machine and a loyal crew of men.

Deryn Sharp is a commoner, disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

With World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.

If I got to write a letter to the author of Leviathan, I’d say, “Scott Westerfeld, don’t be that guy- that guy who has a great idea for a story and then ruins it by dumbing it down for his readers”. I read the first two books in his Uglies series, and it was a struggle just to make it that far. Westerfeld creates these amazing worlds which feel so familiar and yet very exciting. He has strong willed main characters with something to fight for. But then there’s the lingo that he insists on hitting you over the head with, which for me, really made me cringe during his steampunk alternate history, Leviathan.

The story takes place on the brink of World War I, and follows two very different characters: Aleksandar Ferdinand, the prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Deryn Sharp, a girl masquerading as a boy in the British Air Service. Austria-Hungary is on the side of the Axis (called Clankers in the book, for their machine warfare), while Britain is on the side of the Allies (called Darwinists for the use of their “fabricated” beasts). While the two are on opposite sides of the war, they are facing many of the same problems. Both have lost parents, have had to be on their own, and have egos that need serious humbling. The world of Leviathan is refreshingly unique and awe-inspiring. Whales as zeppelins, lizards as messengers, enormous machines like robots that you can sit inside and walk around in…I really wish this world were real.

Despite how cool the world is though, I can’t say that I loved this book. The lingo drives me absolutely bonkers. Every few pages, I was cringing over words like “clart” (excrement), “barking” (f***ing), “boffins” (well educated adults)… I get it. The point of the lingo is to make the story seem otherworldly, but mainly I was just annoyed. I got so wrapped up in decoding what everyone was saying that I wasn’t really paying attention to the story. I felt cheated with this story because I was expecting it to be so much more; I really thought Westerfeld would raise the bar and write something that was difficult and deep, but I got more of Uglies: a cool world with no substance.

I will say that the art of the book is fantastic. The illustrations throughout are beautifully done and really add to the story. The cover art drew me in from the beginning, covered in cogs and wheels like the inside of a mad clock. My favorite part was definitely the map of the Great War on the inside front and back covers, with each country represented by an animal or some machine. While I didn’t much care for the story of Leviathan, I loved the world of Darwinists and Clankers, and can’t wait to find out more about how each side builds their weaponry in Behemoth, the sequel due out this October.

Publication date: 2009
Pages: 464
Rating: : ★★★½☆

Teaser Quote: “Maybe this was how you stayed sane in wartime: a handful of noble deeds amid the chaos.

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18 Comments

  • Hmm….

  • I enjoyed this book – the neologisms didn’t bother me but I read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy.

  • I thought this book was brilliant. Those words didnt bother me at all. Besides “barking” is not that hard to figure out.

  • The only problem with your argument is that he wasn’t using the words clart, boffin, and barking to make it seem otherworldly. He was using these because, as a whole, society was less vulgar then and people of that time used these as substitutes to what we would normally say now. In the same way that some of our current swear words are getting overused to the point of not being powerful anymore, we look at these past obscenities as more of a joke then they would have then. I think is was a brilliant manipulation of the language.

  • I think he uses that lingo NOT because he wants it to sound otherworldly but to make it more realistic. You realize it’s in 1914, right? That’s how people talk back then. Westerfeld’s not making a new language of his own.

  • Westerfeld’s lexicon was certainly meant to paint a more realistic time period. That’s a huge part of historically-set fiction. The author shouldn’t dumb down the text for you to understand. If you don’t understand a word, look it up or figure it out within context. Really, “barking” isn’t all that challenging to understand. Even though Westerfeld didn’t invent the language in this book, I had nothing wrong with “bubbly” in the Uglies series. Inventing a language to go with a world has been a staple of writing for centuries. Where would Lord of the Rings be without the detailed elvish and dwarvish languages? (I’ll suggest you never attempt to read Finnigan’s Wake by the way…)

    Also, I would vehemently argue that Uglies is not “a cool world without substance.” It sounds like you did not understand the arguments Westerfeld was trying to make about it’s dystopian society.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Leviathan. It’s the first steampunk novel I’ve read and I’m intrigued by the genre. My biggest issues were the historical inaccuracies and deviations, but I understand why Westerfeld took the liberties.

    Thoroughly enjoyed this book!

    Also, it’s probably irrelevant for me to be posting this 1.5 years after the original poster, but I like to get my two cents in.

  • I’m a University of Chicago grad with a degree in literature. If I say a book is bad, it’s bad. (Which in this case, I didn’t. I actually liked Leviathan, I just didn’t love it.)

    Also, it’s Finnegans Wake, honey. You should know the title of the book you’re recommending to someone. I doubt you’ve read it or understood it.

    Uglies was a very poorly written and uninteresting series. And don’t ever compare Westerfeld to Tolkien again. Somewhere, the Inklings are rolling in their graves.

  • Language should never take away from a book. Yes, slang evolves but if if the languages detracts – it needn’t be used. Consider the words of Jane Austen or Dickens – who compiled complex sentences with vocabulary that is still widely used today. I found even sentences in Shakespeare or Donne to be more easily understood contextually than Westerfeld.

    It is easy to engross a reader into your story and to still be historically accurate. You can throw in slang that was apt for the time as long as it pushes forward dialogue or creates a sense of realism that wasn’t previously there. But if a reader is struggling to get through the work – to connect back the words, to contextualize them, they won’t enjoy the book. This is a fundamental rule of writing.

    Unless your absolute goal is to push the reader beyond their vocabulary like Burgess in A Clockwork Orange or Tolkein (which I doubt Westerfeld was trying to do) – make it simple and clean. The authors Est cites use a specific style to create a world – Middle Earth wasn’t a real moment in time. And comparing Joyce’s narrative style to Westerfeld is honestly a stretch. Finnegan’s Wake is a modernist work and attaches itself closesly to that movement of literature – the story is as much about stylistic choices as it is the plot. About delving into the world of the subconscious, of narrative limits, of puns, of language itself! It’s not some dual-plotted story about WWI.

    Overwhelm us, bring us into your world with complex ideas – not necessarily by implementing archaic or underused words.

  • So I just found this post, and me being me, had to add my two-cents of thoughts.

    Quite frankly, the words are not that hard to figure out so I don’t know what you mean by it detracting from the story. Besides, if anything, I think it adds authenticity to it all. Especially since both sides have such unique language you can differentiate between Alek and Deryn’s language perfectly. If you couldn’t figure out “Boffin” after a couple uses of the word, then clearly you can’t use context clues. Besides, that was the word used in early 20th century Britain for Scientist. Then the word “Bosun” had be stumped for a bit, though I knew it had to be dealing with a position, which it does. Real word once again. Actually this reminds me of Mark Twain. He uses nautical terms, and even back then a lot of people would not have known such terms that he uses within his works, and yet look at his stories now. They don’t detract at all. Anyway back to topic: words such as “Clart” and “Barking” and “Aye” all add to the character of Deryn. Plus they are once again no brainers.

    Besides, look at other books with distinctive language that was MADE UP (not just thought to have been fictional tongue). My first thought was Harry Potter. If one cannot get through dated language, then one can never read fictional language.

  • I liked the use of unfamiliar terms and slang – whether completely made up or adapted from the language of the era. Consider the great fabricated lingo of “A Clockwork Orange”.

  • um, well Im a Freshman and understood every word of it. Scott writes books for easily adaptable readers, if a different language was thrown in suddenly (lingo) most of those readers can use context clues to understand th rest of the story, I guess some people just don’t understand. He cant dumb everything down so anyone and everyone can understand it like that. The world of leviathan doesn’t just sit on it’s slang, it has more, that is what makes it so real, the lingo isn’t a hindrance it adds to the reality.

  • oh dear child, the historical accuracies are because of the STEAMPUNK genre he also explains that anyway in the back of the book. I give no hate because it was your first steampunk thing.

  • The lingo was confusing for a few minutes but actually very easy to figure out. It added to the story and didn’t distract me from the plot at all. Also if you can’t adapt to the slang you really shouldn’t be reading steampunk especally since there was so much mor to this book than slang. I read this in 1 day and loved it. And thought it wasn’t very hard and I’m only 13.

  • the lingo did throw me off, a little bit for the first few minutes, but I got used to it. I can imagine Deryn without now, it seems wrong. I think that Scott Westerfield was right to use that lingo. I think that the lingo didn’t even really make it other-worldly. I didn’t spend time deciphering. SI think that maybe three sentences in the entire book took a moment to figure out. I thought it was simple to read, and really added to the book.

  • So I’m a sophomore in highschool, and I have to say Ienjoyed the book. Unfortunately I’ve never heard of the Leviathan series until now, but the steampunk genre Scott Westerfeld incorporated was interesting and new for me in a book. The book maintained good composure, and gave me a thirst to want to know more. I thought the back and forthness of the journey between Deryn’s secretly enrolling in the Royal Air Service, and Alek’s escape coming together was a creative way to get the flow of the story going. The story did stop suddenly, but that in itself makes me want to keep reading into the series. Oh and since everyone is mentioning the lingo, I thought it was conveniently placed in the time period as well, and in my opinion felt slightly humorous.

  • I’m sorry, but I don’t agree at all. I loved this book and I think Scott Westerfeld is a brilliant author. I loved Deryn’s use Scottish phrases (it makes the character so much more developed) and most of the words that were used were actually used in that country and that time. Besides, they weren’t that hard to figure out.

  • Okay, we all get that your a snobby girl with a university degree. I really don’t think you should be criticizing someones else’s book, which is a published best seller, translated into several other languages, and has won an award, when you haven’t even gotten anything published. Also, if you are not an author, how come i don’t see your name on a magazine article, or a thesis, or anything else? You are not the one that has hundreds of thousands of fans, or 18 successful novels published, so you aren’t really at the level where you can criticize someone like Scott Westerfeld. So don’t.

    • who said the reviewer is a university graduate?

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