Author: Scott Westerfeld; illustrated by Keith Thompson
Published: Simon Pulse (2009); an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Genre: Young Adult; Science-Fiction; Steampunk
I had the opportunity to borrow this from my local library, so rather than wait to find a copy trickled down to the used-book stores to then read, I placed a hold on it and was actually first in line to check it out. That's a first for a new release. So, I've had the chance to sample the much ballyhooed "steampunk," as well as check out the work of accomplished author, Scott Westerfeld. I'm impressed on both counts.
Taking place in an alternate version of Europe before the start of the Great War. The first half of this novel is told through two parallel storylines. On one hand, we start off with young Austrian prince, Alex, who is roused from his bed in the dead of night by two of his father's loyal confidants, Master Klopp and Count Volger, after the assassination of his parents abroad. Then, there is the story of a young girl, Deryn, posing as a boy in order to enlist as a midshipmen in the British forces after her father's tragic death, fearing she may not be able to fulfill her dream due to her gender. The story delves into the lives of each teen as they are shaken from the remnants of their childhood and whisked into tumultuous lessons in adulthood and duty, as their respective countries prepare for war.
The instruments of war is where the "steampunk" element comes into play. On Alex's side are the Clankers, as Germany and Austria have adopted a very industrial mode of war machines, with two-legged tanks and monstrously huge, spider-legged machines that could be described as land-based battleships. Anything with wheels or treads is relegated to the farmers and lower classes. On Deryn's side are the Darwinists and their genetically manipulated vehicles and weapons. The discovery and exploitation of animal DNA has enabled the Darwinists to use the "life threads" of assorted creatures to build alternative forms of transportation and weaponry, including hot-air balloons derived from jellyfish DNA, and a huge airship called Leviathan that's reminiscent of a giant whale with an entire ecosystem regulating it. Thanks to the interspersed artwork of Keith Thompson complimenting the vivid descriptions of Westerfeld, the eye candy is plentiful from both the Clankers and the Darwinists.
Aside from the window dressing, however, there is an engrossing story taking place inside this book's pages--two actually since it takes almost half the book before Alex and Deryn even cross paths, and when they do it's in a big way. Alex is on the run from the Clankers, as he's the loose string that could threaten the German/Austrian alliance against the Darwinists. While Deryn finds herself in battle at the same time she's trying to keep her true identity a secret from her shipmates and superiors. And when the two teens do finally meet, they could inadvertently plunge the whole continent into war before any side is truly prepared.
For what's listed as young adult, this novel is fairly mature, though not so much that it should deter parents from letting their kids read it. There is some grade-A imagination at work, and it's worth the read just to soak in all that eye candy I referred to earlier. I found this book good enough for me to look forward to the next installment, as well to take Westerfeld's Uglies series for a spin to see how that fares.