Leviathan | A Worldbuilding Feat and That’s About it

Steampunk is pretty much my latest new obsession. Ever since I was introduced to Nancy Campbell Allen‘s steampunk works, I’ve been hooked. I’ve even started trying to write some of my own, but I’ve quickly found that I have no idea what I’m doing. So I did what any writer would, and started researching!

Now, unfortunately, there aren’t very many steampunk titles out there. At least, not as many I expected there to be. But shortly after I began my search, the title Leviathan came up several times. And not only that, but my husband actually had a copy! So I was thrilled when I finally found a spot for it on my reading list. I eagerly pulled it off of its shelf, opened it up, and was startlingly disappointed.

The first thing you need to know about Leviathan is that it isn’t quite steampunk in the usual sense, but that depends on what definition you’re using. It absolutely is an alternate history with advanced technology, but it doesn’t take place during the Victorian era like most steampunk does. Instead, it takes place just as WWI is breaking out, which let’s face it, is a pretty dang cool idea.

Really, the whole premise of the story is pretty genius. WWI, but with advanced technology? Fascinating! Especially since by using the context of the war, Westerfield was able to divide his universe into different schools of thought and technology, so he got to play with two completely different sci-fi ideas while still making it plausible. Pretty awesome, right?

Add to that his vivid descriptions of the “walkers” that the “clankers” use, as well as the “fabricated beasties” used by the “darwinists,” and pretty soon you’ve got a fully developed world with lots of nooks and crannies full of exciting stuff to play with. The concepts are incredible, the context is just plain fun, and the writing pulls it all together into a nice little bow. And you want a bonus? Just check out the incredible illustrations throughout the book! Beautifully vivid, these pictures make the whole idea even more believable.

Unfortunately, that’s about where it ends. It seems to me that Westerfield was so busy worldbuilding that he forgot to develop a plot. Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but it felt as if the whole book were split into two parts: the introduction and the final battle. By the time I was halfway through the book, the story was still all set-up, and the two main characters hadn’t even met each other yet. But we sure did know a lot about the world!

Then, all of a sudden, it’s time for the final battle. The two main characters, who have barely met each other, are forced to trust each other with their lives. Then they both take pretty big risks considering the fact that they don’t even know each other.

Speaking of the characters, I was a little disappointed there too. You see, they’re supposed to be about fifteen or sixteen years old. That’s also who the book is primarily marketed to. But their mannerisms, speech, and decisions are all much more characteristic of eleven or twelve-year-olds, and the language of the book seems more fitted to that audience as well. Now, I don’t have anything against middle-grade books. I love most of what I’ve read there. But it kinda threw me for a loop seeing these fifteen-year-olds behave as though they were eleven.

Really, the story had so much potential. There were opportunities everywhere for deeper character development and interesting plot twists, but it felt like every time Westerfield set himself up for a wonderful piece of writing, he threw it away in favor of yet another description of what it was like inside the giant airship Leviathan. 

I’m glad I read this book. I really am. It was an interesting part of my steampunk expedition, and I did learn a lot about worldbuilding and exploring the genre. The concept was fascinating. I just wish there was more to it than cool animal ships and giant robots.

Cleanliness: Brief mention of female anatomy in the context of a girl disguising herself as a boy. Nothing remotely extreme.

RecommendReaders interested in worldbuilding or middle-grade readers with enough determination to finish a somewhat action-less book.

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