I have only recently discovered Scott Westerfeld, despite him being a New York Times best selling author. Why might this be? Well probably because of late he has been writing Young Adult/Adolescent fiction (okay, just wait, those of you who flicked the “not interested” switch in your head. Don’t be so hasty.) One of my bugbears about the labelling of books in this regard is that it does turn off adult readers, turn them off from perfectly well written, exciting and interesting work.
And so it would have been for me if I had not spotted the book in Target rather than in a traditional dedicated bookstore. In this case the retail staff’s casual indifference toward organised shelf stacking paid off. The cover (seen in the Amazon ad below) by Sammy Yuen Jr. “screamed” Steampunk at me and intrigued me enough to pick up the book. By the time had cracked the cover and seen Keith Thompson’s fantastic poetic map of 1914 alternate history Europe, I was going to buy this book.
The backdrop of the novel and ensuing trilogy is an alternate history, a history where the Clankers (nickname for the German/Austrian powers) build great war machines of iron and steam. From 8 legged scout walkers (faintly reminiscent of Star Wars scout troopers) to behemoth land ships and swift Zeppelin airships. Soon to be pitted against these are the Darwinists(France & England) who have access to an accelerated understanding of evolutionary theory (Darwin apparently discovered genetics). The Darwinists use genetically enhanced “fabrications” from great hulking tiger-wolf hybrids that pull carriages to Hydrogen filled living airships in the shape of whales.
The book begins just before the outbreak of hostilities between the major powers in 1914 and at least one of the main characters is central to those affairs Alek, the son of the assassinated Arch Duke. Alek’s story is one of privileged prince thrown into a life on the run where he must escape to Switzerland, to save his own life and crown.
Running parallel to this is the story of Deryn Sharp, an English girl that masquerades as a boy so that she can join the air service. She is a midshipman on the Leviathan(hydrogen filled whale airship), despite her obvious skills, she is constantly in fear of being discovered(there are still strong Victorian ideals in Darwinist society) and dismissed.
Their paths collide as the airship sets of to Constantinople on a secret mission, under the direction of a female boffin( Darwinist slang for scientist) Dr Nora Barlow-Darwin.
It’s an adventure story with a hint at coming of age set against a wonderfully rendered background. Westerfeld has given us a 1914 that is wildly different in many respects but hauntingly familiar in others, balancing well the need to construct an engaging, altered world with that of not straying too far from the laws of physics or the understandings of science as we currently know them.
I for one am interested in how the opposing technologies in the war will further alter Westerfeld’s altered history. I can also see a relationship developing between Alek and Deryn which is fraught with conflict- between love and friendship, love and loyalty.
Why would I recommend the book to adult readers?
Why would I not? I find Scott’s writing to be honest and plain(plain only in the sense that its easy to read) with a hint of flavour in the dialogue and slang used by the characters. The writing is not “dumbed down” there may not be gratuitous sex or violence, but Scott doesn’t hold back on action or the facts of war i.e. people die and often not in the nicest of circumstances.
It is quite simply a nice entertaining read…
and it’s Steampunk
PS It contains possibly the first and only example of a Thylacine kept as a pet in fiction.