By Scott Westerfeld [LibraryThing]
It’s 1914, and the world powers are on the brink of war: the German and Austria-Hungarian powers (Clankers) with their enormous machines, and the British, French, and Russian (Darwinist) powers with their engineered beasts. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is the spark needed to light the powder keg, and war spreads quickly, throwing millions of lives into turmoil.
In Serbia, Alek Ferdinand, son of the assassinated archduke, must go into hiding when he learns that his allies were behind his parents’ murders, and his own people might be even more dangerous to him than the enemy. Meanwhile, in England, commoner Deryn Sharp has disguised herself as a boy and joined the British Air Services, where she serves aboard the whale airship Leviathan. But when the Leviathan is called on for a strange mission, things go badly very quickly, and not even neutral territory can protect Alek and Deryn when they meet…
Oh, man. If I were going to make a list of my very favorite tropes, “girl kicks butt while disguised as a boy” would be in the top five. Maybe even top three. Way up there, is what I’m saying. So, as you can imagine, I really, really enjoyed this book. But where Deryn’s chapters grabbed me immediately, Alek’s part of the story took me awhile to get into. But his picked up too, once he began to get a grasp on the situation in the world. Where Deryn spends most of the book active and having adventures — and how much do I love having an extremely active female protagonist? — Alek’s story is more about becoming active, learning what’s going on and what he can do about it. He has more of a character arch than Deryn does, and once it gets into full swing, he shines as a charming character in his own right.
Aside from the characters, the premise of the book is awesome. I’m not particularly into steampunk, but the idea of a genetically engineered floating war-whale? What about that does not sound awesome? But there’s also a certain amount of weakness in the premise, which is that the situation is complicated. Virtually all I remember about the lead-up to WWI from high school history is the assassination and that powder keg metaphor. The book deals a lot with shifting alliances between countries and betrayals within those alliances, and the balance of power, and etc. That stuff never became quite clear to me — it didn’t hinder the immediate plot of the book, but it did make it harder for me to wrap my head around some sections, especially Alek’s.
There was one other little quirk that irritated me, a minor over-reliance on period (or period-style) slang in Deryn’s chapters. I find that a little goes a long way, and there’s a very fine line between using slang phrases effectively for world- and character building, and overusing them to the point of it sounding like a nervous tic. While this was nowhere near as extreme as I found it in Westerfeld’s Uglies series, it occasionally did step across that line. But that was a very, very minor quibble.
Overall? ZOMG I NEED THE NEXT BOOK NOW. I will definitely buy it as soon as it comes out — in hardcover! — and thus this book is a solid four cupcakes.
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