Reading level: Young Adult
Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: Simon Pulse; First Edition edition (October 6, 2009)
Genre: steampunk, adventure
I got a copy of this book courtesy of one of my friends (thanks Kasiul!) in a form of an e-book.
The first novel of this series presents World War I as never seen before. The story begins in accordance with the historical facts: on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie are assassinated, triggering a sequence of alliances that plunges the world into war. But that is where the similarity with history ends. After the assassination of his parents, Prince Aleksandar, their only child, must run for his life or he will be assassinated as well. The worst thing is that he is not aware of the danger. He is smuggled out of his palace by a small group of loyal servants – apparently his father has organized everything beforehand just in case. The five of them flee Austria at night in a Cyklop Stormwalker, a war machine powered by Diesel engines that walks on two legs. Not everything goes smoothly, though. How do you get a 15-year old boy to do exactly what you want him to do? Ask him if he’s too scared to do it and he will be eager to prove you can’t be more wrong. The technique works with princes too – at first Aleksandar is defiant and almost openly hostile but soon enough, thanks to the cleverness of one of his tutors, Wildcount Volger, he provides full support to his people. They will need every help they can get.
The war, however, won’t be about mustard gas and months spent by tired soldiers in muddy trenches; Aleksandar’s Great War is going to be a showdown between two factions: the Clankers and the Darwinists. The Clankers (Austrians and Germans) depend on mechanics and steam power, man-made machines with a various number of legs and firepower that rivals the creative weaponry and biotechnology of their opponents. The Darwinists are inspired by Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution, creating crossbreeds of animals and also airships out of living organisms with changed DNA. On one such an airship, called Leviathan, serves an unusual girl called Deryn (or Dylan) Sharp. She prays that no one will discover that she is a girl or her career as an airman, the most exciting thing she’s ever done in her young life, might end rather abruptly. Girls can’t be soldiers. When her airship crashes in Switzerland, Alek and Deryn’s paths cross, and suddenly the line between enemy and ally is no longer clearly defined. The damaged ship needs plenty of food and new engines – two of many things hard to get on a glacier unless you can get help from the Clankers; Aleksandar, contrary to his servants, thinks it would be a good idea to help with the repairing of the ship and move outside Switzerland… As it happens Leviathan heads south, to the Ottoman Empire, and its mission is highly secretive, involving a lady-scientist, a thylacine, some talking lizards, talking parrots, and a batch of temperature-sensitive eggs. Will the representatives of two so different nations cooperate peacefully to save their skins?
This is a novel which seems to return to the wonderland of Jules Verne but with 20th century history instead of the fin de siecle world of Verne’s 1900 France. In a digitalized reality of 21 century, where most children, let alone adults, have long lost the sense of wonder, it is a pleasure to read about awe-inspiring science without computers, light sabers, holodecks, spacecraft or green aliens.
The plot is full of action – you will be glued to the book till the very end. It presents a very interesting historical twist and mentions some complex problems as well: for example in Leviathan the mystery of DNA has been manipulated to create a huge, living dirigible or airship. However there are some countries and even a lot of people in the Great Britain itself (called Monkey Luddites) , who oppose the very idea of artificial life creation. It promises a lot of conflict and I hope it will be explored further in the next books of the series.
Last but not least: Wildcount Volger is a really great fictional character (although secondary) and I am looking forward to reading more about him!
While I don’t deny that I was completely fascinated with the fast-paced plot and the whole world-building, I found the characterization of main teenage characters a little flat. It is just the first part so I expect more character development and emotional depth in next books – there’s certainly a lot of potential for it. I fully know, however, that it is a YA book and the author’s intended target audience may disagree with that criticism.
It’s a fun, fresh and decidedly unique tale. If you like steampunk and adventure don’t miss this one. Buy the second book and even pre-order the third. I certainly will.