Sunday, January 24, 2010

Clockwork Contraptions and Unnatural Beasties

I've appreciated touches of the steampunk trend elsewhere: in the 1960 The Time Machine starring Rod Taylor and the curious contraptions in Hayao Miyasaki's movies. Reading Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan immersed me in this fascinating mash-up of Victorian and futuristic science and technology. Leviathan is set in an alternative version of Europe on the cusp of World War I. The first protagonist is Alek, the teenage son of assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, who is on the run from his enemies. The second protagonist is Deryn, a teenage girl masquerading as a boy in order to join the British Air Service.

In Westerfeld's mind-bogglingly creative world, Germany, Austria-Hungry, and the Ottoman Empire arm themselves with menacing steam-powered contraptions, such as nimble two-legged tanks and enormous walking land frigates. The allied Brits, French, and Russians have embraced Darwinism and genetically engineered beasts that are half animal, half machine. The greatest example is the Leviathan, a gargantuan, part-whale airship, which manages to be both an unholy perversion of the natural law and COMPLETELY AWESOME. I am certainly in a quandary over it. The military terminology and action sequences bring to my mind Hornblower's naval battles as well as Imperial walkers on Hoth.

Leviathan is the first book in a series with rather a cliffhanger ending. You can imagine my distress as I drew near to the exciting conclusion, realizing there weren't possibly enough pages left in my book to incorporate a conclusion. Although a bit slow to warm up to, the characters developed greater depth and likability as the narrative progressed, and I'm eager to follow their burgeoning friendships in the sequel(s). However, for me, the absolutely best, most mesmerizing element of this book is the illustrations, and more specifically, the map appearing on the endsheets. I could gaze at that map for hours transfixed by the eerie mythological faces forming Norway and Sweden, the warrior lion curled into the shape of Great Britain, and the slavering Russian bear with his jaws open and poised over the machinery filling the regions of Germany and Austria-Hungary. If I were to make a list of my favorite maps from books (and this does strike me as an excellent idea), that map would certainly be in the top few.


Jackamo said...

Super cool! Norway looks exactly like one of the Mystics from The Dark Crystal.

By the way, the word verification was "snerml." I like that word.

Jenny said...

That illustrator's name would be ... ?