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REVIEW: Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

Dear Mr.Westerfeld,

Following an enthusiastic recommendation from Lou of The Book Pushers, I picked up your Leviathan Trilogy, a YA steampunk series, to read with my husband. The series is set in a fun, detailed and engaging if not 100% believable world where World War I is a clash between two technologies, one DNA based (“Darwinist”) and the other electromechanical (“Clanker”).

Behemoth
Book two of the series, Behemoth, picks up where Leviathan left off, with the intrepid girl Deryn Sharp still disguised as a boy, “Dylan,” so she can serve as a midshipman aboard the Darwinist British whale-based airship, the Leviathan, and Alek, the Austri-Hungarian prince whose parents’ assassination started the war, still aboard the Leviathan as well, and still hiding his own identity.

While Deryn knows Alek’s secret, Alek still thinks of Deryn as Dylan, a boy he admires and wishes he could be more like. Alek’s companions, Count Volger, Master Klopp, Bauer and Hoffman, are piloting the Leviathan for the Darwinists, due to the airship’s acquisition of Clanker engines in the previous book.

The uneasy truce between the Darwinists and the Clankers aboard the Leviathan is shattered when the airship encounters two German warships, one of which has a weapon the Clankers recognize but the Darwinists don’t. The Clankers turn the Leviathan around in the nick of time, but not before suspicion falls on them and Alek is shot.

In the wake of the incident, it becomes clear to Alek, Deryn and Count Volger that as soon as the Leviathan’s crew learn to operate the Clanker engines, the Austrians on the ship will be detained. So Alek and Volger begin to plan their escape from the Leviathan, while Deryn, who has budding romantic feelings for Alek, turns a blind eye.

Meanwhile, the Leviathan arrives in Istanbul, its destination. Dr. Barlow, the airship’s clever “Boffin” has assigned Deryn and Alek to take care of the gestating eggs which she engineered. One of the eggs is intended as a gift for the Sultan, to be given in a gesture of good faith and the hope that the Ottomans keep out of the war.

But the Germans are already in Istanbul, manipulating the Sultan and attempting to take control of the situation. One attempt after another of Dr. Barlow’s to reach out to the Sultan and the Ottomans is foiled by the Germans’ machinations.

If the Germans learn that Alek is in the vicinity of the city, they will certainly try to kill him, since he may be the Archduke’s heir and one of the few people who, if he ascends to the throne, could call off the war.

As Deryn and Alek work to defeat the Germans, their friendship and loyalty to each other continue to grow. But can the feelings of two fifteen year olds amount to a hill of beans amid the Clanker/Darwinist conflict?

Behemoth has some of the same strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor, but overall it was less successful for me than Leviathan.

I’ll start with the novel’s strengths before moving on to my problems with it. First, there is Deryn. She is appealing in many ways: a quick thinker, a courageous young officer, and a teen girl character who is strong and resourceful. I think she’s a more empowering heroine for girls to read about than Bella or Katniss.

Deryn also has human flaws that make her relatable. She gets stressed, impatient, and even though she has feelings for Alek, who has told her his secret, she doesn’t want the secret of her gender to be uncovered and won’t reveal it to him.

The world, in which huge robotic vehicles battle giant genetically engineered creatures is imaginative and impressive, and Keith Thompson’s illustrations show that these inventions have been well thought, as well as make them easy to visualize.

The setting of Istanbul also comes to life with vivid descriptions such as this one:

Istanbul was already lighting up before her. Clanker electrical were harsher than the soft bioluminescence of London and Paris, and what had seemed a ghostly glow from the airfield was dazzling this close. The city looked like a fairground coming to life, all glitter and brilliance.

And this one:

Touring Istanbul on foot wasn’t like looking down from an airship or the howdah of a giant elephant. The smells were sharper down here—unfamiliar spices and walker exhaust snarled in the air, and pushcarts full of strawberries passed, leaving a sweet haze in their wake, along with a few hungry-looking dogs.

And there’s an interesting gender dynamic in the series in that Deryn, the girl, is the brave, confident, competent one while Alek is less sure of himself and occasionally bungles things.

Now for the weaknesses. Alek is a sympathetic character and has grown some since the beginning of the previous book but he’s still a lot less intriguing than Deryn.

That is not a problem when the two are together, but when their storylines veer off in different directions and the two go their separate ways, as happens for a good portion of this book, it becomes an issue. I found myself invested in Deryn’s chapters, but for the most part, bored by Alek’s, and eager for the protagonists to reunite.

The characters also seem young for their age. This is a YA for younger teens and for preteens, and kids may enjoy it more than I did. Reading it as an adult, and one who loves romantic storylines, I got impatient for Alek to learn Deryn was a girl and for Deryn’s feelings to be reciprocated.

With the exception of Dr. Barlow, the side characters, an American reporter and some Ottoman anarchists, didn’t engage me much either, even when a fair number of pages were devoted to them. I’ve come to the conclusion that character development takes a backseat to setting and worldbuilding in these books, and that is a disappointment for me.

Speaking of world/setting, there’s also less of the Leviathan in this book than there was in the previous one. The airship, an ecosystem of creatures, was one of the most exciting things in the Leviathan, and has no counterpart in Behemoth. The Ottomans’ animal-shaped mechanical walkers don’t hold the same fascination, and although there is also a clever and cute Darwinist creature in this story, it doesn’t have the same degree of magic.

Like many middle books in YA trilogies, Behemoth suffers from the “sagging middle” problem – there are fewer exciting twists and turns in its plot. I have hopes that book three will be more compelling, since the final last hundred or so pages of Behemoth certainly were. But that was not enough to make up for the middle-of-series doldrums, so I give Behemoth a C-/C.

Sincerely,

Janine

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

8 Comments

  1. Carolyne
    May 04, 2013 @ 11:14:46

    I enjoyed the series, but only after resetting it in my mind as a middle grade book–ages 9 to 12 rather than 12 & up. I agree that it’s lacking some of the more complex underpinnings needed for teens, even younger ones. Still, the tension among characters and a sense of real danger kept me going. Overall I’m glad I stuck with the whole journey, but beyond the leviathan itself, ultimately the series isn’t as memorable as some of his other work.

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  2. Janine
    May 04, 2013 @ 11:53:05

    @Carolyne: Thinking of it as a middle grade series is a good idea. I haven’t read his other works; do they read older?

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  3. hapax
    May 04, 2013 @ 12:51:09

    @Janine — Westerfield’s “UGLIES” series didn’t work for me (dystopia burnout, mostly), but they are mega-popular and *definitely* YA.

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  4. AH
    May 04, 2013 @ 15:32:23

    I enjoyed this series as I am always on the prowl for books that would attract young, reluctant readers (my sons). My youngest who was 12 at the time he read the books loved them. I think that the wonderfully whimsical illustrations really helped. The author has a really cute trailer for the first book on his website – it will give you an idea if you’ll like this book or not.

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  5. Jordan R.
    May 04, 2013 @ 20:11:41

    I haven’t “read” these books, but I listened to the audiobook versions. They are narrated by Alan Cumming, and he does a fantastic job. I would wholeheartedly recommend listening to this whole series – I think the narration helps round the characters into likable and sympathetic people. Plus, Alan Cumming’s voice is tres yummy, and his comedic delivery is spot on!

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  6. Carolyne
    May 05, 2013 @ 09:49:14

    Most of his books read older, to varying degrees; LEVIATHAN is a bit of a departure from where he normally writes.

    I loved the first book in his (unconventional) YA vampire series, PEEPS, gigantically. The hero is obsessed with parasites that alter the host’s behaviour, so chapters alternate between vampire-hunting and creepy musings on how parasites do things like make an ant climb to the top of a blade of grass so a cow will eat it so the parasite’s eggs can gestate in the cow’s intestines and be expelled so that ants can consume it and on and on. Not to mention what cats do to humans. The second book, THE LAST DAYS, was more in the post-apocalyptic vein (which I usually like) and felt a little more run of the mill, blah blah vampires blah blah whatever, and didn’t work for me.

    I hugely enjoyed Westerfeld’s SO YESTERDAY, about a group of trend-spotting teens with an uncanny ability to pick out the next craze that can be marketed, who get entangled in mysterious doings and disappearances. It won solid recognition, awards, and accolades in YA circles. I was introduced to it at a reading where Scott himself read the first chapter–I was sold on the spot by how he brought his story to life. But a caveat: the book may feel dated now (it was published in 2004). I don’t know how it holds up to time.

    I liked the MIDNIGHTERS series, but it is definitely younger YA, mostly a quick read, about a girl who discovers that for her, every night, time stands still for a (subjective) hour and she can move about at will. Plus, it encourages young readers to seek out 13-letter words (part of the magic of the “secret hour”). The author achieves a balance between the joys of teen wish-fulfillment and the eeriness of a world that’s not quite right and soon falling out of control.

    UGLIES worked for me (and for the unattractive-but-smart-but-unappreciated teen I always saw myself as growing up), but the series overstayed its welcome. The more the world develops, the more it drifts away from being about those fundamental human insecurities into its own thing–which is fine, but somehow not as rich. At least one of the books has been adapted into a graphic novel that’s selling well, but I haven’t had a look at it yet.

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  7. Janine
    May 05, 2013 @ 12:27:20

    @hapax: Thanks; I knew those were hugely popular but not how old they read.

    @AH: The illustrations are great. I found this trailer on YouTube. It is pretty cute, even though I’m not a fan of book trailers.

    @Jordan R.: Thanks for the rec!

    @Carolyne: Thanks for the rundown. You sure have read a lot of Westerfeld! So Yesterday sounds the most appealing to me of these, but to be honest, I don’t know if I’ll try Westerfeld again after the Leviathan trilogy.

    @AH, Jordan R. and Carolyne: For what it’s worth my husband likes these books better than I do. He thought my C-/C grade for Behemoth was harsh.

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  8. John
    May 05, 2013 @ 22:49:22

    FWIW, I loved Westerfeld’s UGLIES series. The companion book, EXTRAS, isn’t nearly as good, but the first three are fabulous (the first especially) and were very ahead of their time. They were started in the mid-2000′s before even Twilight was majorly popular. The downside is that they may feel like a lot of the recent dystopian novels – though the concept elevates them and still stands as something unique in my mind. SO YESTERDAY was entertaining and well-written, but it does show its age because of the concept, cool as it is.

    Loved your review, Janine. I only ever read LEVIATHAN and I’ve been iffy on whether I really want to read the other two books. I loved LEVIATHAN, but Westerfeld’s not an author I gel with so highly that I’d follow him with every book and every breath, so this opinion is helpful on deciding whether or not to continue the series. :)

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