Fragile loyalties, gender subversion, and a wide assortment of living beasts as practical to the early 20th century mind as a work horse—Scott Westerfeld’s Behemoth is a non-stop thrill ride that’s as topical as it is adventurous. Not that I would expect anything less from a series that roared into the public domain in 2009; Leviathan set the pace and tone with sprawling landscapes and engaging characters; Behemoth solidifies a bold vision of history that continues to impress.
Aleksander Ferdinand, Archduke and heir to the Austrian throne and staunch (yet impressionable) Clanker, is still on the run from pursuing German forces. He and his men are British prisoners of war, grudgingly entrusted to work the engines they donated to the Darwinist airship, the Leviathan. The entire crew is making progress toward Constantinople—née Istanbul—to deliver Dr. Barlow’s strange effects, but Wildcount Volger and Master Klopp are ready to bail ship. On the other hand, Alek’s devotion to his father’s legacy is muddied by his time aboard the giant air beast. He’s in love and can’t help but open his heart to Dylan Sharp, young midshipman, Darwinist, and friend to the Prince.
His confession does more than unsettle Deryn—the true, female identity of Dylan. It creates a new problem on top of the secrets she’s already harboring from the rest of the crew—Alek’s real identity and her gender. As it turns out, Alek is in love with the Leviathan itself. If the world wasn’t already confusing enough, this just so happens to cause rather alarming feelings inside of Deryn—feelings she’s not quite sure she’s ready to recognize or deal with. And this nebulous intrusion may be the one thing in this novel I thought could have been left out. I do also realize I might be developing something of a curmudgeonly attitude toward romance or romance-like insinuations in novels with characters whom I feel are strongest as friends. This aside, I want to focus on the good. There were many good things in this book.
Leviathan, with its wondrously organic spectacle of fléchette bats, air balloons, and the beastly titular ship, had more of a Darwinist mood to it. On the other hand, Behemoth is all steam-powered walkers, elephants, golems, and goddesses with monstrous Darwinist sea beasts lurking in the background. In other words, Clanker territory. These visually striking machines are drawn in intricate black and white detail by the talented Keith Thompson, who will presumably do the artwork for all books in this series. There is no other word more apt that I can think to describe it; returning to this world was just plain fun. The creatures are fantastically vivid, the machines familiar yet strangely alien. Tesla cannons, mechanical kraken, walking beds, a Steampunk-inspired library. The world building is fantastic fun. Drawn over a world at war, the detailed tapestry transcends the merely gimmicky and becomes symbolic.
Just like Leviathan, the sweeping adventures of the protagonists are captured in the space where these two disparate technologies meet. Part Clanker, part Darwinist, the great airship-turned-hybrid speaks for the pivotal friendship between Alek and Dylan. Where the two ideologies collide is a marvelous neutral ground of possibilities where their personal politics, philosophies, and expectations are questioned and tested beyond where they feel comfortable. And where better to explore the conflicting emotions this creates than the great sprawling metropolis of Istanbul?
Stuck in the middle of a country that saddles the war divide, Alek and Deryn have little choice but to face the inevitable confrontation. German forces on one side, British on the other with Turkish rebels sabotaging peace efforts—it’s an open mess with both sides orchestrating deadly prestidigitations in an attempt to gain the upper hand. The fast friendship developed in Leviathan is explored in further detail here as the pair realizes one again the secret to success is teamwork and cooperation, especially in the face of danger. There is, however, a budding sense of romance that eases into the narrative and at times proves overwhelming for Deryn who doesn’t yet know how to deal with those emotions. While not my favorite part of the book, it did work brilliantly to set up a humorously awkward scene that’s also quite endearing. The day when Alek discovers Dylan’s secret is drawing closer and one has to wonder if friendship will conquer betrayal and help maintain the delicate camaraderie of the past couple of months.
Romance aside, I thought Alek developed well as a character. He definitely takes a considerably less passive role in this book as situations arise that demand more of him. His transition from Prince On The Run to Commander was quick, decided in the forest evading capture, but should that really be surprising considering his circumstances? He’s been trained from birth, one might imagine, to shoulder the weighty responsibility of rulership when the occasion requires, even if he has seconds to decide. Neither Alek or Deryn are normal in a contemporary sense of the word. But they are also quite remarkable young adults working toward becoming good human beings rather than simply a good leader or a good midshipman. Behemoth has heart and that is never more apparent than in the interactions between Deryn and Alek. The two clearly care for each other. Although the subtle prejudice against women permeates Alek’s world and threatens to undo how he’s grown to see Dylan as a person rather than as a gender. This is, however, countered well with the feisty Lilit and her matriarchal family of renegades.
As the middle book in a trilogy, I found myself pleased with how well Behemoth sets up the action for Goliath without compromising the non-stop momentum of its own storyline. In addition to the beasts and machines that have become par for the course in this series, there’s a bit of undercover work, new characters (who doesn’t like Malone?), and an amazing new array of illustrations. Westerfeld fiddles with history just enough to make this alternate world plausibly entertaining. Fast-paced and addicting—simply put, I can never make these books last long enough and the wait for the next is always too long. If you want a creative romp into history, these are the books to read.
Release Date: October 1, 2010 in the UK; October 5, 2010 in the US
Reviewed Format: Hardcover provided by Simon & Schuster UK