Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Barking spiders!

What the heck is steampunk, anyway? With the exception of Philip Reeve's lighthearted Larklight series, I don't think I've ever read in this genre before. Well, I think I'll read somemore, 'cause I just finished Scott Westerfeld's wonderful Leviathan. Evidently, steampunk favors the Victorians, but Westerfeld has advanced the setting to July 1914, when Europe is on the brink of The Great War, also known as World War I. In the world of Leviathan, the simmering conflict that blows up into full-fledged war is between Clankers -- whose war machinery is, well, machinery -- and Darwinists -- whose weapons are biologically based, made possible by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Clankers are Germany and its supporters, and the Darwinists are the English and its allies.

Leviathan first introduces us to Prince Aleksander, only child of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who is orphaned when his parents are assassinated in Sarajevo in late June 1914. It's likely that his father was killed because he had expressed support for Darwinist philosophies. Loyal retainers spirit Alek away in the middle of the night, using a walking tank-like machine called a Stormwalker to make their escape to an all-but-abandoned castle in neutral Switzerland.

While Alek is making his escape, we are introduced to Deryn Sharp, who is completing tests in order to become a midshipman in the British Air Service. With the help of her brother, Deryn has disguised herself as a boy, Dylan Sharp. When her training exercise aboard a flying squid goes awry, she makes an emergency landing on the Leviathan -- a flying whale-based creature. Taken on as a midshipman, she's off on a secret mission to Constantinople to deliver some mysterious eggs tended by one Mrs. Barlow. Unfortunately, the Leviathan is attacked by some Clanker airplanes and is forced to land on a glacier nearby to Alek's isolated castle. Our two heroes meet up and their adventure together begins.

The print version of Leviathan includes lots of illustrations by Keith Thompson; you can get a sneak peak at them here as well (the video book trailer is pretty fun, too). I didn't feel the lack of illustrations while listening, and had some slightly different conceptions of the various elements. (I was definitely thinking Imperial Walker for Alek's Stormwalker.) Still, I think when all the holds have been filled at my library, I'll take a look at the book for myself.

So, what about the audiobook? It's just terrific. It's narrated by Alan Cumming, of whom I am most fond (although this is the first audiobook I've ever heard him read). He's like an evil pixie. He understands that this novel is all about the action, so he reads briskly and with genuine excitement as the plot moves forward.

At the same time, he's also a great creator of vocal characters. He reads Deryn with a lively Scots burr and Alek with a quiet Germanic precision. When Alek begins to speak to Deryn in English, his accent changes very subtly. There are a raft of other characters that all come to life with Cumming's careful reading, including Alek's somewhat frightening mentor, Count Volger and the formidable Mrs. Barlow -- one of those English people completely confident that they should be in charge of everything. I was engaged every minute of listening to this.

Scott Westerfeld reads his afterward and this is informative; he's not a professional narrator, but his reading is clear and interesting. He explains what parts of his alternative world really happened (in our world ... did I need to say that?) and what parts he made up.

The book opens and concludes with stirring, adventurous music that is so appropriate that I wanted to hear more of it. (I don't think that very often.)

Leviathan will make an excellent family car trip audiobook. While Deryn and Alek are 15, there is absolutely no hanky-panky going on. I won't spoil it, but suffice it to say that romantic feelings are briefly considered. The language is fine as well ... "barking spiders" is Deryn's favorite swear word. There is a little bit of potty humor as the Darwinist vessels are basically fueled by gas.

Bad thing: These adventures of Deryn and Alek are just the beginning. It'll be a year before Behemoth comes out! [Barking spiders!]

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