Monday, November 21, 2011

Perspicacity

There are few things more satisfying than just the right ending. Scott Westerfeld satisfies. While listening to the impish Alan Cumming read the third installment of Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy, I had a stupid grin on my face the whole time. Goliath, in the hands of Westerfeld and Cumming, is -- as our heroine Deryn Sharp would say -- barking brilliant! The end is so satisfying that I don't even regret that my adventures with Deryn and Alek are over ... or are they?

Goliath picks up as the Darwinist whale/ship is making its way from Constantinople to Russia. Prince Alek and Midshipman Sharp are back on board, along with Alek's advisor, the Wild Count Volger (who knows that Deryn is disguised as a boy) and the Darwinist scientist Mrs. Barlow. The two perspicacious lorises that hatched in Behemoth are here as well. The Leviathan is headed to Russia to pick up some secret cargo, along with the scientist Nikola Tesla. Tesla claims that he has a weapon, Goliath, so utterly destructive that it will bring World War I -- Westerfeld's imagined conflict between the Darwinists and the Clankers -- to a quick close.

Alek, who blames himself for the War, believes he must ally himself with Tesla, whom most everyone else views as barking mad. But Alek is also struggling with the betrayal he feels once he learns Deryn's true gender. He had told her everything, she'd been lying to him from the start. He's not sure they can be friends again. Of course, Deryn has more than friendly feelings for the crown prince, but she knows that he could never marry a commoner.

Once Tesla is aboard, the Leviathan heads for the United States, some fateful meetings with some other figures from history (William Randolph Hearst [here is an excellent example of why finding more than one source is generally a good idea!] and Pancho Villa), and a dangerous test of Tesla's Goliath. Alek and Deryn again meet the bumrag American newspaper reporter named Eddie Malone (who writes for Hearst's competitor, Joseph Pulitzer), who threatens to expose Deryn. (It's Malone's fake mustache that the Bovril the perspicacious loris is playing with in the image below.)

There is a very romantic scene on the top of the beastie in a tremendous storm, there is cagy diplomacy and tense military standoffs, there is humor (most notably with those sly, but charming lorises), Deryn saves the day with some aeronautic derring-do, and -- in Westerfeld's world, the War might indeed end by Christmas. Deryn is mouthy and brave, Alek is noble and lacking in confidence. They are utterly innocent, yet sweetly believable young lovers. What with all the globe-trotting, it's amazing to think that these books take place in about a three-month period of time.

This being my second visit with Alan Cumming and these characters (I've also listened to him read this), I realize (again?) how skilled he is at voice acting. Each character is unique without being a caricature, and everyone sounds natural (with the possible exception of Hearst's ace girl reporter, Adela Rogers, who sounds exaggeratedly femmy). Deryn's soft Scottish burr coupled with her impulsive delivery is so lovely to listen to, and it contrasts nicely with Alek's formal, German-tinged voice. I also enjoy the novel's other characters: the gravelly, vaguely menacing Count Volger, the pip-pip boffin Mrs. Barlow, the gladhanding Eddie Malone. The lorises, who repeat phrases that they've heard before in the voice of the human speaker, are consistent and deeply amusing. Cumming's command of accents is evident here: British English (various social classes), American English, Scots, German, Serbian (Russian), and Mexican. And he switches between them with what appears to be ease and confidence.

I also like Cumming's narrator voice; he provides a pleasant neutral British accent. He keeps things moving at the brisk pace Westerfeld's story demands. The excitement of Deryn and Alek's adventures are evident in the liveliness and tension of Cumming's reading.

As he did with the previous audio versions, Westerfeld reads his own afterword. I like the connection this gives me to an author. His information (what's true, what's not) is helpful, but not overly comprehensive.

The audiobook's publisher, Simon & Schuster, provides a short video of the author and narrator chatting that makes me love them even more (although I confess to a desire for Alan Cumming to wear some sleeves!). I was so glad to hear Westerfeld say that listening to the audiobook is a different story experience and how critical the narrator is to this experience. It appears that Cumming's natural speaking voice is the one he has given to Deryn. If, indeed, the adventures of Deryn and Alek continue, please let's keep Mr. Cumming working!

[Keith Thompson's illustration of Bovril the perspicacious loris was retrieved from Scott Westerfeld's website.]

Goliath by Scott Westerfeld
Narrated by Alan Cumming
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2011. 10:34

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