Sunday, November 21, 2010

Review of Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

Westerfeld, Scott. Behemoth (#2, Leviathan Trilogy). Illustrated by Keith Thompson. Simon Pulse, 2010.

In the follow-up to last year's Leviathan, Deryn (or Midshipman Dylan Sharp of the British Air Service, as she is known) and Alek (who happens to be the heir to the Austria-Hungarian empire) are only on the airship Leviathan a short time together before Alek decides it is time to escape into Istanbul. Deryn, meanwhile, leads a dangerous mission that lands her in the streets of Istanbul as well. Joining forces with a rebel group called the Committee of Union and Progress, they hatch a plan to wrench control of the Ottoman Empire away from the Germans.

There is, as Westerfeld notes in his afterword, some distinct resemblance to events that actually took place in 1914, including the names of German ships, the Orient-Express, the fascinating mash-up of cultures in Istanbul, and much more. But the steam-powered, mechanized Clanker culture of the German-speaking countries and the biological engineering of the Darwinists in Great Britain transform this into an imaginative and glorious Steampunk saga.

I made sure to read this (rather than listen to it as an audiobook, as I did with Leviathan) in order to savor Thompson's intricate illustrations, laden with metal pipes and gears and tentacles. The descriptions of life in Istanbul, which has been partially modernized by the Clankers and so boasts a library with quite an astounding mechanized method of finding and retrieving books (sort of a precursor to RFID technology), are fascinating; rich folks get around in strange steam-powered vehicles that boast six beetle-like legs instead of wheels.

Deryn has of course fallen hard for Alek and is tempted to tell him she's a girl, especially when a gorgeous, fierce rebel named Lilit appears on the scene. She retains her usual bluster and bravery, however, and remains the most vivid and wonderful character. Alek is still very idealistic and upright, but that's okay - we wouldn't want a potential ruler to be any other way, and luckily he has a sense of humor.

Second books in series or trilogies are often maligned as being "bridge books," short on action and long on either filling in the background or setting the stage for the third book. I find them very satisfying, however, because the reader is already familiar with the characters, the setting, and the world, and can immediately plunge right into the story. And so it was with Behemoth, which has so many details to ponder and relish.

The last book in the trilogy promises to take place in Japan, a Darwinist country in this alternate world history.


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