Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. (Grades 6+)
Full disclosure: Picked up review copy from Simon & Schuster at ALA.
Are you a Clanker or a Darwinist?
In Scott Westerfeld's wildly imaginative alternate WWI novel, Clankers have developed advanced war machines. Giant walkers that trample everything in their path.
Darwinists have unlocked the secret to combining DNA and fabricating fantastic creatures that fill all kinds of uses, from messenger lizards to giant hydrogen-producing whales as airships.
Alek is on the run. His parents were Austro-Hungarian royalty and they have been killed, some say, to start the war. Alek's very existence could threaten the Empire, so he goes into hiding for his own safety.
Deryn's got something to hide, too. Disguised as a boy she enlisted in the British Air Service. She loves to fly and lives to serve her country, but how long will she be able to keep up the facade?
When Alek and Deryn meet they have no idea that it'll change both their lives, but before they know it they're starting a fantastic journey that will change their lives forever.
Oh, Scott Westerfeld. How does he come up with this stuff?
Besides having a super-interesting premise, I was drawn into stories about two characters that I immediately liked. Short chapters that switch between Alek's and Deryn's points of view kept the action moving. The world-building is done effortlessly. The fictional world was being built around me as I read and it felt very organic, which is just how it should feel. I wanted to know more, wanted to stay in this world and learn more about it. Excellent.
I do have a beef. Well, actually I have two beefs (beeves?).
My first beef is that there's a sequel and I want it NOW. Which, I guess, is not Mr. Westerfeld's fault. Okay.
My second beef is that I wish the characters had further addressed the ethics of the Darwinist creations. I get that it's set in an alternate 1914, maybe before many people really thought animals should have rights. And there is some discussion of Alek feeling uncomfortable with the whale-ship and other fabricated animals, but he pretty quickly comes to accept them. As I was reading, it would bug me periodically, like They're on a whale. What must that whale be thinking? Oh, now the whale/ship is getting shot. Does it feel pain?
Maybe it's historically accurate that no one would be concerned with the ethics of creating and using these creatures, I dunno. (That would have been great information for an author's note, just sayin'.) Maybe that's an issue that will be addressed in future books. And maybe I just need to let it go and get on board because that's really the only thing that bugged me. Otherwise, I thought the story was great, the characters were great, and the world was great.
Plus, it's unlike anything else I've ever read. I'm not saying I'm all that well-read, but it's definitely nice to read something different. If it reminded me of anything, it was Airborn, which I LOVED. It's the same kind of adventure story in a really interesting alternate history. Oh, and there are airships. *nods*
Leviathan's due out October 6.