Now, if you really enjoyed Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, and can’t bear to hear a word against it, I suggest abandoning the reading of this review. Now that I got that out of the way, I can begin. Steampunk used to be one of my favorite genres. It combined everything I enjoyed about kids’ books: cool tech, flights of fancy, plucky heroes/heroines, the 19th century, and England. I had heard from people praising this book as the second coming of Alan Moore, and from the back cover, I thought that it was going to be.
It promised a ripping yarn full of everything I mentioned previously, and it did, to an extent. What it didn’t follow through on, though, was making the story interesting enough to survive without all the other trappings. The real test of a steampunk novel is if when you strip away the fantastical veneer, it still tells an interesting story, with compelling characters and a believable, but not too real setting. When you take the veneer off Leviathan, it leaves a sort of formulaic plot, and run of the mill characters. The protagonists are Deryn Sharp, a typical sort of Eowyn-esque “I wanna be a soldier but I’m a girl” character (her plotline actually has scenes that seem directly lifted from Disney’s Mulan), and Aleksandar Hapsburg, who’s a pretty boring “spoiled prince get’s taught about the real world” type, and is also a bit of a jerk, considering that he murdered a guy in cold blood, but his character development consists mainly of him angsting over his inability to pilot a steam powered robot correctly.
Their stories would be interesting, if they went anywhere. There’s no real build up of dramatic tension: Aleksandar, even though he’s supposed to be running from people who want to kill him, spends a lot of time sitting around thinking, and Deryn doesn’t face any conflicts in her quest to become a soldier, besides her gender, but as before, Westerfeld doesn’t build up dramatic tension well enough to make me care about that conflict, or anything else in the story besides the mildly interesting technology system. Which brings me to another point: even if a certain work has a slightly predictable plot, if there are enough interesting ideas being winged your way, it doesn’t matter as much. Look at Star Wars. Even though the plot is simplistic and the characters are archetypal to the point of cliche, there are so many “hey look at that, that’s awesome” things happening to distract you from it.
In Leviathan, even though the genetically engineered animals and steam powered mechas are cool to look at (one good thing about this book is Keith Thompson’s excellent illustrations), and the slang is just the right amount of incomprehensible and annoying to fully remind you you’re reading an SF novel, there’s a point at which one neat device or technology system isn’t going to be as stunningly awe inspiring as it was the first time you saw it. Therein lies the issue: Leviathan doesn’t have enough crazy concepts to change a dull SF novel, into a pulpy guilty pleasure, something Westerfeld’s previous book Uglies did so well. And this would be fine, if the plot were interesting enough to exist on its own. As I said before, it isn’t.
I know there are devoted fans of this book out there, and I fully respect their opinion on this, but for me, I thought the story and characters were dull, and there wasn’t enough insane, off the wall things to keep me distracted from those shortcomings. I won’t even get into the unfortunate implications of having genetically engineered animals fighting mechas in World War I. That’s a review for a different day. And that’s why I quit halfway through.
This book is a doozy of a read, but also one of the most fun, thought provoking books I read this year. In a plot that almost defies exposition, a business man named Palmer Eldritch visits another planet, and is possessed by a godlike being. He creates a drug that transports people into a hallucinatory pocket dimension where they become him, or aspects of him. One man tries to stop him from imprinting his image on the inhabitants of the solar system, and insanity there follows. Philip K. Dick tosses out nutty ideas that are at points both wacky, profound, disturbing, or a combination of all three, and creates eerie atmosphere like Ray Bradbury with a screw loose.
The way he subverts the old “Mars is a land of romance and adventure” cliche, is both genius and intensely saddening. The way he develops every character, with their own neuroses and heroic elements is great, and even the Palmer Eldritch/immature godlike being character is revealed to have several dimensions to him, and is not painted as some ancient evil, but instead as a well intentioned idiot who happens to have cosmic powers. This book is filled with psychedelic tripping, and its gleeful hops through time, space, and relative dimensions almost make this a kind of Wrinkle in Time for 1960’s LSD enthusiasts. My main issues with this book include that the plot doesn’t really pick up until the protagonist arrives on Mars, and the hallucination sequences are definitely on the incoherent side. They make sense, but not enough to remove the sense that you yourself may be on psychotropic drugs.
But if you’re ready to take an unhinged thrill ride into the imagination of Philip K. Dick, and want to try some sci fi that’s a little different from your run of the mill space opera, jump down the rabbit hole with Palmer Eldritch. You might just enjoy it.
The thing that defines this from other high fantasy works like The Lord of the Rings is how well developed the character of Ged is. Whereas Frodo (and even Harry Potter sometimes) got through their adventures simply by “being there”, Ged has to constantly be taking responsibility for his actions because the otherworldly menace that haunts him exists partly because of his own shortcomings, making this also one of the first “existential” high fantasy books. Ged’s own angsty brooding over his own failings did, and will continue to resonate with modern day teenagers. On top of all that, the cast of characters has a surprising amount of ethnic diversity, for a fantasy novel. Whereas A Song of Ice and Fire or something along those lines usually has a nearly all white dramatis personae, Earthsea has a myriad of different cultures and ethnic groups represented. Although it may sound like I’m bashing fantasy, I’m not. I love it, which is why I so enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea. It revels in and codifies some of the cliches of its own genre. Not only a good fantasy tale, but also a cracking good YA novel.
Libba Bray returns to the form she does best, the “teen historical occult thriller with romantic elements”. This latest book is basically an extended Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode set in the 1920’s, ,involving a rising demon, evil cultists, and a cyborg. But make no mistake: this isn’t a moon-eyed Mortal Instruments-esque fantasy. This is a well researched, well plotted thriller, that doubles as a luxuriant historical novel. While it simply shuffles and deals old occult fiction tropes (for how many mystical cliches are in here, I’m surprised Cthulhu and Aleister Crowley didn’t turn up),the excellent characterization and impeccable period detail shine past that little dispute.
There are also some great spooky moments that actually frightened me, and portentous foreshadowing that, unfortunately, partly set up a sequel. There isn’t any of the hyper-self aware smugness that accompanies some YA books (coughHolly Blackcough) which is a definite plus. Although some weird, pulled-it-out-of-thin-air-at-3:00 AM plot twists turn up (the aforementioned cyborg), this is overall, a very good book.
On a whim, I decided to state my views on that perennial children’s literary staple, A Wrinkle in Time, and in thinking over, I realized how weird it is. The main characters meet winged centaurs; travel in time, space, and other dimensions; visit alien dictatorships run by godlike beings, and have metaphor after metaphor thrown their way. This book was as frightening, and emotionally taxing as all get out when I was 6 or so, especially near the end, but I remember really enjoying all the cosmic concepts set up during it, and strongly disliking the sort of Christ-like child prodigy MacGuffin character Charles Wallace.
Now looking back on it, I didn’t realize how insanely creative it was, and how well developed all the characters, even Charles Wallace are. The sequels, A Wind in the Door, Many Waters, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet are okay, I suppose, and introduce interesting ideas, including the Echthroi, the strange alien worlds hidden inside Charles Wallace’s mitochondria, and a heavy dose of magic, but they don’t measure up to the sheer inventiveness and energy of the original. A modern classic.