Caroline the Future Librarian

Caroline Davis | LIBR 265-10 | SJSU | Wrenn-Estes

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Title: Leviathan
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Date: October 2009
ISBN-13: 978-1416971733

Plot Summary: Aleksander Ferdinand (who likes to be called Alek) is the prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but when his parents are killed, his claim to the throne is threatened and he is forced to flee with a small band of faithful companions and a walking war-machine.

Deryn Sharp, raised in Scotland, just wants the chance to become a soldier, but as a girl she is ineligible to join the Air Service.  Can she fool everyone into believing that she is a boy named Dylan, so that she can have the chance to fly?

In this alternative history based on the start of World War I, the two sides are divided not only by existing alliances, but by the technology each side depends on.  The Austro-Hungarians and Germans are Clankers, relying on their advanced machinery for protection and defense.  The British are Darwinists, able to manipulate the life threads of creatures to produce living weapons and transportation – such as the Leviathan, an airship based on a whale that sustains a complete ecosystem.

Critical Evaluation: Westerfeld’s steampunk version of world events provides a dose of real history with some widely imaginative details stirred in.  The conflict between Nature and Technology seems familiar – it was portrayed recently in the film Avatar, and was famously explored in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Without giving too much of the book away, the characters find that combining the two worldviews may be more powerful than either side alone.  It is an interesting premise, and the ending is left wide open for a sequel, which will surely delve deeper into some of the questions it raises and pick up some plot threads that were left unresolved.  Westerfeld has claimed that Leviathan is the first in a trilogy.

The third person narration alternates focus between Alek and Deryn/Dylan throughout the book, even after the plot brings them together.  Seeing the same events from different perspectives is a clever device, because it gives some depth to the viewpoints of the Clankers and Darwinists.  Westerfeld throws in some interesting historical details to enrich the setting – for instance, one of the characters is always accompanied by a domesticated Tasmanian tiger, a species believed to have gone extinct during the 1930s that would have still lived in 1914.

Leviathan would be a great read for any young adult, and can particularly be recommended for boys and reluctant readers.  The story is action-packed and will hold the interest level of readers of all levels (the writing isn’t particularly advanced, and since there is no objectionable content except for battle-based violence that isn’t too graphic, it could also be enjoyed by younger readers).  Although most of the history is imagined, there are some facts based in reality, which Westerfeld describes in the afterword.

Reader’s Annotation: In this version of World War I, the opposing sides are Clankers (dependent on advanced machinery) and Darwinists (reliant on fabricated creatures that serve as living weaponry).  Alek is an exiled prince and a Clanker, and Deryn is pretending to be a boy so she can be a soldier for the Darwinists – what will happen when the two sides meet?

Author Information: Scott Westerfeld is the author of the young adult series The Uglies, as well as science fiction titles for adults.  Born in Texas, Westerfeld married an Australian author (Justine Larbalestier) in 2001 and now divides his time between Sydney and New York City (depending on which hemisphere is enjoying summer!).  Before becoming a full-time novelist, Westerfeld worked as a substitute teacher, a textbook editor and a ghost writer.  He also enjoys composing music.

When asked about the difference between writing adult novels and YA novels, Westerfeld says, “The main difference is that the storytelling in YA is much more straightforward and direct: no lollygagging. Perhaps I’m a bit more language-focused in my YA work (teens are more into slang, poetry, and nicknames than adults), and my YA probably protags are a bit more uncomfortable in their own skin, in that teenage way. But I think that my basic themes and techniques are pretty much the same.” (Source)

Genre: Science Fiction

Curriculum Ties: World History (possibly, although the fact will have to be separated from the fiction)

Booktalking Ideas:
1) Discuss whether machines and technology can overpower nature, or vice versa.
2) Talk about how real history was incorporated into the story.
3) Think of other books and movies that show the conflict between machines and nature.
4) Predict what might happen next in the series.

Interest Age: 12 and older

Challenge Issues: None, except non-graphic battle violence.

Challenge Defense Ideas:

• Become familiar with the book and its content.

• Refer to the collection development policy of the library, if none, see here to develop one right away.

• Refer to reviews from School Library Journal available for viewing on

• Try to get reviews of the book from teens who have read it.

Selection: I work in a used bookstore and became interested in this title after seeing it on display.  I was also trying to find titles that would appeal to boys.


Scott Westerfeld’s blog.

A book trailer for Leviathan:


February 8, 2010 - Posted by | Books |

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