Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Book Review Club - Leviathan

Scott Westerfield
young adult/steampunk


Already skeptical? Or intrigued? 

Westerfield's romp into the on-again off-again genre of steampunk will definitely leave you thinking. Granted, the complicated web of alliances that led to the first World War could be something tagged as, dare I say, dry and boring? However, by bringing in the fantastical, Westerfield makes a complicated but important era of history a little more accessible. How many students will groan, however, when they learn that Darwinist fabricated creatures did not, in fact, exist. Oh well. Whatever it takes to grab their attention and get them interested, right? 

In short, Leviathan is the story of Aleksander, sole heir to the Archduke of Austria who is being hunted by Franz Joseph and Germany to be done away with quietly, and Deryn, young Scottish girl passing as a boy in order to serve in the Royal Air Force. Their paths cross when the airship Leviathan--part whale, part a thousand other creatures--that Deryn is assigned to is shot down by German planes over the Swiss Alps, where Alek is hiding out. The two join forces to battle a common enemy, the Germans.

If you like science fiction, you'll enjoy. If you like history, you'll have fun pulling apart the real from the alternate. If you like finding new tools for writing, well then, you may actually secretly (or not so secretly) whistle for joy. 

Narration is probably one of the hardest aspects to incorporate into writing without killing a story's pace. We demanding readers want action, not a bunch of telling, right? Westerfield has his work cut out for him with this piece. Not only does he have to get in the usual suspects-character appearance, character backstory, historical setting, setting-he has to explain his fabricated creatures, how they work, how they came into being, and all of that alternate history. It's not small feat. 

Westerfield tackles the weighty challenge by combining narration with other story elements, such as action, dialogue, and emotional responses. Much like the Darwinists in his story combine life threads of various animals to create fabricated war animals, Westerfield combines to create wholly new show-tell and tell-show “beasties” that turn a potential pace killer into a pace maker.  

It's marvelous work, if a writer is looking for a few new tricks. How do I work narration into dialogue without it becoming an information dump? It's here. How do I distract with action while getting across narration? In Blake Snyder's words (Save the Cat) pull a Pope in the Pool? Westerfield uses a sword fight. Dissertations could be written on that sword fight alone. It's narration. It's a segway from Act 1 into Act 2. It's a symbolic cutting of the last strings of etiquette so that Alek is free to strive to leave his mark on the developing war. It's just plain good writing. How do I make narration a pace maker? Ah, it's here too. Nothing like using the divulgence of information to spark a romance between two main characters. 

So, if you are looking for a little narration helper, look no further. Westerfield has a few tricks I will definitely use in the future. There is much craft to learn here, and even a few fun facts. It's well worth the two or three nights it takes to get through the book. Well, well worth it. 

And when you're done with that, hop over to Barrie Summy's blog for more interesting reads!


Sarah Laurence said...

This book has certainly been getting the buzz. I like how you analyzed the writing behind the story.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Stacy, I've been intrigued by the concept of Steampunk for a while now, but haven't found many steampunk books I've actually liked. Since I love history, I'm definitely going to give this one a try! I'm downloading the Kindle sample now. I, too, like how you analyzed the writing techniques as well as the story. Great review!

Oh, I did like Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti (Juno Books). It has a steampunk-type of setting, but takes place in a made-up world rather than being alternative history of our real world. Hope that description made sense.

kaye said...

I've seen this book reviewed on a lot of blogs, it must be good. I enjoyed your perspective on the book.

Sarahlynn said...

I rarely think I'll enjoy Steampunk but when I indulge, I always have a blast.

And there's nothing better than a book that teaches me craft. Thanks for the review!

Keri Mikulski said...

Nice literary analysis! :) Love how you brought in SAVE THE CAT - one of my favorite books. :)

I'm so intrigued by steam punk right now. Thanks for the timely review!

Barrie said...

I'm totally intrigued now. I'll have to check this book out for the craft. I'm not a huge steampunk fan. That said, I'm reading one of the Series of Unfortunate Events. ;) Thanks, Stacy! (p.s. Fun chatting with you the other day!)

Ellen Booraem said...

Great analysis, Stacy. Like everyone else, I've had this book on my list for a while just because it sounded intriguing, but now it's a must-read. Thanks for tipping me off!

Stacy Nyikos said...

Thanks, everybody. I hope some of you get a chance to read Leviathan. I really appreciated the fact that Westerfield not only entertained but also revealed a few of those nifty narration tricks.