Review originally posted here
.Why I Read This:
I've been PUMPED for this book since its original release in 2009. I thought the concept sounded SO COOL (steam punk! alternative history set during the First World War! girls dressing as boys!) and the pictures were so pretty!! But at the time my TBR pile was massive (as it is to this day) and I couldn't warrant buying a big shiny hardcover (which was stupid because I've bought MANY a book since then). Anyway, for Christmas back in 2011 I bought the book for my brother because he was just getting into reading at the time and I thought it was something he would like, and I was kinda hoping it would push me to read the read book sooner rather than later. It still took me forever to get to it though, as you can see, but better late than never and all that. No spoilers ahead.
I think I'm in a pretty big camp when I say that I LOVE LOVE LOVE stories about girls who disguise themselves as boys in order to do Boy Things (not that it's FAIR that they've been assigned Boy Things, but you know). So anyway, it's absolutely no surprise that I fell head over heels in love with Derryn.
I think I should clarify that this book is told in alternating POVs, jumping between the secret heir of the Austrio-Hungarian throne, Aleksander, and the aforementioned girl-in-disguise, Derryn Sharp. One problem with alternating POV novels is that sometimes authors don't quite make the voices of the different POV characters distinct, and they thus get muddled. That is NOT the case here. Because of Alek's princely upbringing, he speaks much more proper than our common girl Derryn, who swears like a sailor and has the most awesome turns of phrases EVER ("barking spiders!") Even when there isn't dialogue though, the narrative voices are distinctly different between the two characters, so if I were to open the book on any given page, I'm fairly certain I would be able to tell you whose chapter it was.
As for the plot itself, it felt oddly short for a 440 page book. To be fair though, the margins were pretty big and the spacing was fairly spacious, so it was a fast 440 page read. But it almost all felt like set-up. The first half in particular is kind of slow-moving as Westerfeld gets things going. But honestly? This was all perfectly fine by me because I was engrossed in his world-building, and it deserved all the attention and detail it got. I have read reviews though that complain that there is too much time spent on describing contraptions and vehicles and stuff though, so I suppose that's something to be wary of.
But the world-building! IT'S SO GOOD!! I'm no connoisseur of steampunk, but I've always been fascinated by it. It's all very aesthetically pleasing and alternative history just sounds so fun, doesn't it? It also helps that I've had a fascination with WWI and WWII since grade 10. Before then I had ZERO interest in history, but then I got a really awesome teacher and he got me to enjoy it immensely, and the two Wars (and some other bits) were the core of the course, so those periods in history have always interested me more than others. I haven't even gotten into the technology though! If you're on the internet at all, you have an idea of what steampunk "looks" like: lots of metal, gears, clocks, zeppelins and all that fun stuff. That's all here. Westerfeld takes it a step further though and showed me something completely new and different: Darwinism.
See, the world is mostly divided between "Clanker" technology (which is your Star Wars inspired run-of-the-mill steam punk stuff) and "Darwinist" technology which is, unsurprisingly, completely animal-based. For example, the ship that Alek and Derryn spend most of their time on (the titular Leviathan
) is one giant ecosystem; the airship itself is a whale and other animals live inside the whale which in turn helps it function. The whole concept was entirely new to me and I loved it.
I've already mentioned the characters (re: I love Derryn), but I do want to mention that while Derryn was an obvious fav, I loved pretty much everyone. Some people have complained that Alek is kind of complain-y, and I mostly agree, BUT, I think he makes up for it in many ways: he's almost always willing to admit he's wrong and he's quite willing to help people, even at his own expense. The secondary characters are quite good as well. Volger is kind of a dick, but you know he has Alek's best interests at heart (though I sometimes wondered if it was ONLY because of his loyalty to Alek's father); Doctor Barlow is obviously badass and I thought she was hilarious; her interactions with Derryn were awesome. There are a few others, and while they're never given considerable page-time, I still thought they distinguished themselves outside of just "being there".
Some reviews I've read have had issues with the writing of this book, outside of the many descriptions of vehicles and things. This book is marketed as YA, but some have said they believe the book reads too young to be shelved there and should instead be shelved as MG. I'm a bit on the fence here; on the one hand I was surprised at how young the voices read in this. Derry and Alek are both fifteen, but save for a few moments here and there, I wouldn't have been surprised if they were as young as 12. The writing itself reads at the lower end of YA as well. This didn't deter my love for the book at all though. I honestly don't care where it's shelved -- it's a great work of fiction and I enjoyed it immensely.
I also want to express how impressed I was with the art. There are a TON (I'm talking one or two pics a chapter almost, plus the beautiful coloured map at the beginning of the hardcover) of beautiful detailed pictures in this book by the artist Keith Thompson and I was in awe of the detail put into them. They were also often placed at perfect moments, such as when a vehicle or contraption of some kind was being described. I'd be having trouble picturing it in my head and would then turn the page to be pleasantly surprised that I had a PICTURE to show it to me.
Oh, and for anyone who is curious about the alternative historical aspects of the novel, Westerfeld includes a wonderful afterword at the end of the book that talks about what was really based on real history and what was his own fabrication. Definitely worth checking out.Final Verdict:
A wonderfully demonstration of some of the best world-building I've seen in awhile. Westerfeld takes steampunk and totally runs with it, while also mixing in something completely new and fresh (Darwinism). The characters were both likable, though I have a very clear penchant for the wonderful girl-disguised-as-a-boy Derryn and her rough vernacular. Her story is overall more exciting, but I still liked Alek immensely as well. The secondary characters get plenty of development and page-time too. I loved all the wonderful illustrations that populate this book; they're very detailed and incredibly well drawn, and I'm glad that the publishers decided to publish this on nice high-quality paper (though it does make the book kind of heavy.)