Book review: Goliath, Scott Westerfeld

GoliathIt’s been a looooong time between instalments, but Scott Westerfeld‘s Leviathan trilogy wraps up with a sterling conclusion in Goliath. Probably the best word to describe the third and final part of the series is “cracking”… which is also the best word to describe the series as a whole.

Minor spoilers ahead for Leviathan, Behemoth and Goliath.

So! Fresh off their adventures in Constantinople, our heroes Alek – secretly a prince – and Deryn – secretly a girl – venture to Siberia, Japan and then New York City in the flying warship Leviathan. On their quest the duo encounters several historical figures – including Nikolai Tesla, William Randolph Hearst and Pancho Villa – and finally confronts the romantic tension that’s been brewing between them the past two books.

Alek and Deryn are terrific characters, but Westerfeld’s greatest accomplishment is the world he’s built: set in the lead-up to World War I, the Leviathan trilogy pitches “Darwinists” (roughly equivalent to the Allied powers, who genetically engineer animals into terrifying war beasts) against “Clankers” (the Central powers, who battle with colossal hulking machines). There’s a lot going on here. It might’ve been laboured, or too complicated. But Westerfeld handles it all so cleverly!

Grown-ups will get into Goliath but be aware it falls squarely into the YA camp (never a bad thing, but some adults are weird about reading books “for” teens). Know a smart kid who you want to indoctrinate into the awesomeness of steampunk and alternate history and science-fiction? Give them this whole series.

If there’s a problem with Goliath, it’s that the story hints – and Westerfeld’s afterword makes it explicit – that 20th century history turns out very different because of Alek and Deryn. Their actions basically stop a world war. And that’s only a problem because World War I is this huge terrible epic thing, and the threat of it looms over all three books, but then it… doesn’t happen (or at least, happens on a much smaller scale than in our timeline). Which, on the one hand: yay, WWI averted, millions of lives spared. But on the other hand, from a narrative perspective, the climax loses some of its oomph.

But it’s a minor quibble. Especially since I don’t think this is the last we’ve seen of Alek and Deryn – or at least, not the last we’ve seen of the Darwinist/Clanker universe. With an entire century of history ready to be rewritten, Westerfeld’s got loads of territory left to explore. (Also, I want to see the perspicacious loris Bovril talking for reals.)

Lastly, major credit must go to Keith Thompson’s beautiful, lively illustrations, one of the true delights of all three books.

Previously: Book review: Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld, Book review: Behemoth, Scott Westerfeld


Book review: Zombies vs Unicorns, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

A book with the title Zombies vs Unicorns is pretty much guaranteed to be made of awesome, and this is indeed made of awesome: not only because of its subject matter, but also because it’s edited and written by some of the foremost members of the YA mafia.

So the premise is basically that Justine Larbalestier prefers zombies while Holly Black prefers unicorns (Team Zombie FTW, btw), and they’ve each gathered writers to their cause to prove, once and for all, that one supernatural beastie reigns supreme over the other.

I reckon Team Zombie has the edge here: there are some fantastic (in both senses of the word) stories by Cassandra Clare, Scott Westerfeld, Maureen Johnson, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Carrie Ryan and Libba Bray, who writes ‘Prom Night’, perhaps the best entry in the whole book (though it’s a tight race).

That said I have newfound respect for Team Unicorn thanks to the stories of Margo Lanagan, Naomi Novik and Meg Cabot.

Unusually for a short story collection, there aren’t any stinkers in Zombies vs Unicorns – though some entries waver on the lengthy side, the majority of the twisted tales are haunting or funny or both.

Not to be forgotten is the bold, brillmazing cover art by Josh Cochran: it depicts a gory, bloody, deliciously cartoony scene of zombies and unicorns locked in a battle to the death (or the afterdeath, or whatever it’s called when you kill the living dead). It kinda reminds me of a really violent Where’s Wally scene. I’d happily buy a print and put it up on my wall. (It turns out you can buy a print at Cochran’s website. Hmm. So tempting…)

There must be a sequel. Pirates vs Robots, perhaps?


Book review: Behemoth, Scott Westerfeld

So I’m not a huge fan of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series – it didn’t really grab my imagination. On the other hand, the Leviathan series reaches into my brain, rips my imagination right out of its imagination-tubes (that’s how brains work, right?), tears it into pieces, and eats them.

When I reviewed book one in the trilogy, Leviathan, I dubbed it “ace”. Book two, Behemoth, is therefore ace-er. The elements that made Leviathan such a great read – World War I alternate history setting, genetically altered beasties, clanking steam-powered machines, girls-disguised-as-boys, ripping adventure – are ramped up as we follow our heroes Deryn and Alek to Constantinople as they attempt to diffuse the tension between the Darwinists (the rough equivalent to our world’s Allies) and the Clankers (the Central powers).

I’ve noted before that Westerfeld excels at world-building, and his research trip to Turkey while prepping Behemoth definitely paid off with the richness of the settings.

(This next paragraph has some spoilers for the plot, so skip it if you’re yet to read the book.) So I suppose my criticisms of the book are really just frustrations with the fact that I have to wait a while for part three: though the relationship between Deryn-disguised-as-Dylan and Alek thickens nicely, it feels like he should’ve discovered her true gender by now – that the tension will be dragged out to the next instalment is a bit much.

(Actually, my biggest criticism with the book is nothing to do with Westerfeld: the cover of book two doesn’t match the cover of book one. I hate when publishers switch the covers mid-series!)

On the other hand, the mysterious eggs in Leviathan hatch into something chin-scratchingly intriguing (not to mention unbearably cute) in Behemoth, and Westerfeld (who must have been inspired by this video when he wrote in this character) drops tantalising hints that this subplot will have an awesome pay-off in book three, Goliath – which I have high hopes will be the ace-est in the trilogy.


Book review: Uglies, Scott Westerfeld

If there’s one thing Scott Westerfeld is really, really good at, it’s world-building. The guy excels at coming up with these great ideas and then fleshing them out into fully-realised fictional worlds.

The great idea that underpins Uglies: in the not-too-distant future, children have an extreme surgical makeover when they turn 16 that transforms them into “pretties”. Pretties, obviously, are extremely beautiful – their features and proportions tailored to an evolutionary standard of perfection. Pretties also look, more or less, exactly alike: this future society has determined that it was the differences between people of our time (“Rusties”, as they’re dubbed) that made us fight so much. The operation rubs out those differences.

Tally Youngblood is the last of her friends to have the operation. They’ve all become pretties and moved to New Pretty Town – an adolescent utopia of constant fun and parties – leaving her alone in Uglyville.

Until she meets Shay, who’s also on the verge of going under the knife. Except Shay doesn’t want the operation. To Tally’s horror, Shay wants to stay ugly forever. Worse, Shay has a crazy plan: she wants to run away to join a society of dangerous rebels. Dangerous ugly rebels.

The rules and hierarchies of this society are brilliantly complicated (be prepared for some major infodumps dotted throughout the book, though Westerfeld is skilled at weaving them into the plot in a manner that’s rarely heavy-handed), and some of the future technology is just genius – seriously, I need a hoverboard, like, yesterday.

I started reading Uglies for the first time before I read Westerfeld’s more recent book, Leviathan. I stopped reading after a couple of chapters (and didn’t pick it up again till a year later). Similarly, I started to read Pretties, the sequel to Uglies, but I’ve since put that d0wn too. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the books – but there is a certain plodding quality to their pace. Particularly in the early chapters of Uglies, where I felt like Westerfeld deftly set up the first act then draaaaagged it out, then deftly set up the second act then draaaaagged it out.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. I bet there’s plenty of readers who will revel (and have revelled, judging by the book’s apparent fanbase) in exploring Westerfeld’s world and getting to know his heroine, Tally. But I have to confess that, on more than one occasion, I skipped to the end of the chapter because I wanted the story to just hurry up.


Book review: Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld

Leviathan(Apparently this month I am only reading books written by husband-and-wife duos. Huh.)

I picked up a copy of Leviathan when I was in the States last week; I started reading it on Sunday night and had polished it off by Wednesday morning, however, in that time I crossed the international date line so it actually took me even less time to finish than that. The reason I got through it so fast? It’s ace.

The only other book I’ve read by Scott Westerfeld is Uglies (which, to be honest, I didn’t finish), and I liked Leviathan a lot more. It’s loaded with all kinds of rad things: steampunk! Huge mechanical warships and equally huge genetically engineered warships! World War I alternate history! Girls disguised as boys! Heirs to the throne on the run from malevolent political forces!

So. Much. Awesome.

But if you’re awesome-greedy and demand yet more awesome, here it is: Keith Thompson’s illustrations are gawjus. The endpapers of the book alone are worth the cover price – they make me go all Homer Simpson drooly.

The only bad thing about Leviathan is that it’s the first part of a trilogy. This means that a lot of the plot is left hanging for the second instalment, which is released in 2010… but I want to find out what happens nooooow. I’m nerdishly excited about this series and where it’s headed! Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go and stamp my feet for a bit in the hope that it’ll somehow make time go by faster.