Monday, July 22, 2013

Review of Scott Westerfeld's "Leviathan" Trilogy

This is the original, superior cover
Let’s cut to the chase.  I don’t like Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy.  Despite knowing that TONS of people LOVE this series and consider it the QUINTESSENTIAL read for STEAMPUNKERS…I didn’t like it.  Don’t reach for your tomatoes (and perhaps sharper objects) to throw at me quite yet.  It is rare that I actually read a book I dislike—usually it’s apathy at worst—so please just hear me out. 

Don’t get me wrong.  There are specific things I liked about the series:

-          The Steampunk.  To give this multifaceted subculture a crude definition, is basically Victorian Sci-Fi.  Think awesomely anachronistic technology made up of clockwork and powered by steam, and you’re getting close to understanding what it is.  The reason I like steampunk is because I love Victorian fiction, including H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and Steampunk is a hearkening back to that kind of literature.  

-          The German characters.  I like Alek (the main boy protagonist, son of the recently-assassinated Franz Ferdinand) and his bodyguard/mentor, Count Volger. 

-          The alternate history.  This partly goes along with the Steampunk element, but I always like historical novels that also ask, “What if?”  I like contemplating the various directions events could have gone in if a mere element was out of place or altered. 

-          In Behemoth I like the setting of the Ottoman Empire and the character Lilit.

-          Nikola.  Tesla.

“A-HA!” shout the Westerfans.  “So you admit you like pretty much everything about the books!  What’s not to like?”  To which I reply, “Not so fast!”  I admit I like stuff in the series.  Unfortunately this is all the stuff that Westerfeld proceeds to destroy in one way or another.

-          Westerfeld creates a world with AWESOME technology…and then pretty much stereotypes everyone who uses that technology as evil protonazis?

-          The German characters are all evil or weak.  The awesome Count Volger never is an actual villain, but he’s treated like an uneasy alliance.  And Alek!  Well, I’ll talk about that a little later.

-          Again, really?  Westerfeld starts out strong with a fixed historical event (the start of WWI), and I was really interested in what would happen to a fictional heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.  Not that any of the myriad of consequences that came to mind ever paid off, however. 

-          Another thing that didn’t really pay off was Lilit, whose character I expected to be more prominent in the climactic book Goliath. 

-          Tesla we’ll save for later because I won’t finish this post if I get worked up in the middle of it.

 What did I NOT like about it?  DERYN.

DERYN DERYN DERYN.  Here’s a girl whose father died in the British Air Service who decides to compound her family’s grief by running away and trying to get herself killed, too.  She poses as a boy named “Dylan” (as if that were actually a common name at the time…and for that matter who named at girl Deryn in this time period?).  We are told over and over she is very awesome.  If she’s so awesome, I kept thinking, stop telling me one thing while all she does is smirk and be smug about how she’s gotten out from under the thumb of her Oppressive Relatives Who Want Her To Be A Lady. 

Because Westerfeld wants us to think that Deryn is awesome, he ruins the Alek character.  This opens up a whole can of gender-role worms for me, because much as I like to see Strong Female Characters in fiction, I hate to see Weakling Male Characters juxtaposed with them.  Especially in such cases as Deryn/Alek, in which they fall in love and I have no idea why Deryn (if she’s so AWESOME) would fall for Alek (who seems to be made useless in order to have Deryn be cooler than him at everything) in the first place.  THEN there’s the clumsy handling of Deryn’s dilemma: She’s a girl, pretending to be a boy, but now she’s in love.  The way it is handled is for her to be “Oh dear I’m in love whatever shall I do how can I bear hiding my love from my love aaaaagh.”

That’s the main thing I dislike about the book.  There’s three.  The second is: The Darwinists are good.  See, the entire series hinges (when it’s not mooning about Daryn and her personal issues) on the conflict between the Awesome Steampunk Technology Germans (AKA “Clankers”) and the Darwinists, who are the British people who use natural science to breed mutant animals which they use instead of technology.  And they’re supposed to be the good guys.  Sorry, but that just seems WRONG to me.  Where was the WWI PETA to shut these mad scientists down?  I mean, a talking Loris is cool—creepy, but cool—and all, but how many other lorises had to suffer for such a result? 

(It also makes me uncomfortable that Westerfeld (and the Darwinists) idolize evolution so much, knowing that in REAL history, Social Darwinism was a huge factor in the Holocaust and several other ethnic purges.) 

The personification of the Darwinists is Dr. Barlow, a relative of Charles Darwin and a lady scientist who is completely obnoxious, self-satisfied, and one-dimensional.  I felt like Westerfeld was telling me throughout this book “Look!  I’m not a misogynist!  I have strong female characters!”  yet neither Deryn nor Dr. Barlow are emotionally relatable to me.  A strong character doesn’t have to be invulnerable (or melt into a puddle o’ loooove when they are vulnerable) in order to be well-rounded, realistic, or heroic.  I could literally talk for hours about this, comparing other female characters and what makes them “empowered,” but this is about one book series so I’ll stop here for now.

LASTLY, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, is how Westerfeld treated the great Nikola Tesla, innovator in electricity, radio, and all around awesomeness.  Spoiler ahead for the last book:  Tesla is the main villain and Alek electrocutes him.  My reaction was one of shock: “Did you just kill Nikola Tesla!?”  Westerfeld did.  In a Steampunk novel, he killed the one person that almost all Steampunk fans agree PERSONIFIED Steampunk. 

I could go on.  But frankly I’m exhausted by this rant.  You can go ahead and reach for your tomatoes now if you like.



PARENTAL NOTES: Aside from teaching us that Darwinism is Always Right even though it may be cruelty to animals and lead to the Holocaust, and aside from me taking issue with how gender roles are fleshed out, there’s also the whole gender-bending Deryn/Dylan thing.
AVAILABILITY: Fine.  You really want to own these?  Here, have the new covers.  I don’t even care if they’re in hardcover.  Do your own research! 

1 comment:

  1. I like the first and second book (even that think: darwinism is good and mekanist not) but Nikola Tesla, a villain and murdered on the final? That was not cool. I hated the final. Tesla is the best.