Two years ago, I heard Scott Westerfeld read from Leviathan, the opener to his YA trilogy of the same name, at the New York Public Library. My first thought was: This series is going to be awesome. After all, it features:
World War I!
And now, having recently finished reading the trilogy, I can say my initial impression was correct.
The series imagines an alternate history of the First World War, in which the world is sharply divided between Clanker and Darwinist powers. The Clanker nations are built upon machine technology, while the Darwinist countries use fabricated beasts (in this world, when Darwin formulated his theory of evolution he also discovered DNA and how to modify it).
The first book, Leviathan, introduces the protagonists: Alek, crown prince of Clanker Austria-Hungary, is on the run after his parents, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Archduchess Sophia, have been killed, setting off World War I. Deryn Sharp, a Scottish commoner, is masquerading as a boy to serve in the (Darwinist) British Royal Air Force.
When the Leviathan, the fabricated airship Deryn (alias Dylan), serves on is grounded by a German attack, Alek steps in to help the shipwrecked men. Little does he expect the first soldier he comes upon to be a dashing young midshipman with a deep-seated sense of duty and a quick wit—or for said midshipman, immediately noticing Alek’s Clanker accent, to hold him at knifepoint to save his ship.
Of course it’s Deryn. A prickly and promising beginning.
The young prince soon finds himself aboard the Leviathan, where the crew are suspicious of his Clanker origins, though unaware of his true identity. Deryn, busy learning the ropes as a new midshipman (literally: there are knots and daring mid-air adventures involved), befriends Alek, but by the end of the book realizes that she likes him as more than a friend. Her crush is not just barking annoying (she’s a soldier, not some schoolgirl!), but is also useless; Alek can never marry a commoner—his father’s marriage to his not-royal-enough mother was what threw the Hapsburg succession into chaos in the first place.
Cue doomful music.
What better to bring impossible love into greater relief than a revolution?
The second book, Behemoth, finds Alek and Deryn in Istanbul, which is on the precipice of revolution and entrance to the Great War. Alek, considered a POW now that Britain and Austria-Hungary are at war, escapes into the Clanker city with two of his men, a gold bar (the last of his inheritance), and a letter from the Pope that, when his uncle dies, could make Alek Emperor, and enable him to end the War. Pursued by Germans, he allies with pro-democracy Ottoman revolutionaries who want to stay out of the War. His efforts are complicated by the meddling of a dogged U.S. reporter, Eddie Malone, who plans on publishing an exposé on Alek.
Deryn is not doing much better—obviously this is a sign that our romantic leads are better together than apart. Count Volger (Alek’s fencing master) has discovered her secret, and is threatening to expose her and ruin her career. Then her first commanding mission goes south, and she is stranded in Istanbul. Rather than try to sneak back to the Leviathan, she stays in the city to look for Alek. After all, he’s only a daft prince, and probably needs her help. And now that the Leviathan’s diplomatic mission to the sultan has failed, the revolution may be the only way to keep the Ottomans out of the War—and the Leviathan safe from the Germans’ Tesla cannon, a device which can throw lightning through the sky.
Together, Alek and Deryn manage to destroy the cannon and save the airship, but war still looms, and if Alek can’t return to Europe and put matters right all might be lost.
When the third book, Goliath, opens the Leviathan is en route to Japan, across the Siberian plains. Now that Alek has shared all of his secrets with Deryn—including the Pope’s letter—she knows she should tell him her own, and she wants to. But she can’t find the right moment, and Alek, who’s confessed that Dylan’s the sort of boy he’d have liked to have been if he were a commoner, will surely no longer respect her if he knows the truth.
Amidst a tense rescue of none other than Tesla himself from the wilds of Siberia—Tesla, who claims that his Goliath device, in New York, can stop the war—Alek discovers Deryn’s secret and, not long after, realizes why she’s lied: she’s in love with him.
Now, it does take Alek a few chapters to come around, but once he does, he sticks up for Deryn, time and again: in Japan, in Mexico, in New York. And it’s only fitting that their first kiss takes place atop the Leviathan’s spine, in a storm, after Deryn saves his life: the airship that witnessed their first spark-filled meeting is now the stage on which their romance develops.
This is high-stakes romance at its best: Deryn and Alek are in love, but their relationship could destroy the future of entire nations. Of course, if the war can be stopped and Austria-Hungary no longer needs an empire, then maybe they have a chance. Even if it means that Prince Alek needs to get a job and Deryn must pretend to be a boy for a bit longer. It’s an optimistic and delightfully subversive rewriting of World War I history.
I am happy to reveal, in response to Victoria Janssen’s preoccupations on the matter (Anticipating Scott Westerfeld’s Goliath in the Leviathan Series), that the conclusion of Alek and Deryn’s story does, in fact, involve smooches. After all, the book is dedicated “To everyone who loves a long-secret romance, revealed at last.” And a beautiful revelation it is.
Sarah Goldberg is a graduate student, a YA enthusiast, and a recreational minion. She tweets (@sarahbgoldberg), often about music.