steampunk: (noun) “a subgenre of fantasy and speculative fiction [ . . . ] set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used–usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England–but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the world of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date.”
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Scott Westerfeld is a writer of young adult fiction whose work I generally respect, if not thoroughly admire. His dystopian series, Uglies, was marvelous, and even his contemporary spin on vampire lore in Peeps and Last Days was intriguing and thought-provoking.
I was, therefore, extremely excited when I discovered that he released a new book in October. The display in B&N featuring this book and others was my first introduction to steampunk, and my interest was piqued.
First, the novel is gloriously beautiful in appearance. The cover depicts really fantastic steampunk art, with rich reds and golds. Inside the covers is a map depicting the setting of the novel–Westerfeld’s revised Europe on the brink of WWI:
Furthermore, the illustrations in the novel are beautiful, and even the font is pleasing.
The basic plot: Europe is divided into factions. The Darwinists (England, Russia, etc.) have built their armies on fabricated beasts composed of parts of living animals. Their shining glory is an airship called the Leviathan, which is composed of the body of a whale, as well as multiple other animals.
The Clankers (Germany, Austrio-Hungary, etc.) are the Darwinists’ enemies. Their machines are larger-than-life, as well, but these machines are just that…machines. The prime example of this is the Stormwalker.
The story has two main characters. Alek (a Clanker) is the son of the Archduke Ferdinand. When his parents are killed (in chapter 1), Alek and four of his men escape in a Stormwalker because the Germans are looking to kill him, too.
Deryn is a sixteen-year-old girl who loves to fly with her father in balloons. She poses as a boy named Dylan in order to join the British Navy as a midshipman. She successfully joins and, through an accident, winds up on the Leviathan.
The story is told from a third-person omnisicent perspective, but it switches back-and-forth between Alek and Deryn’s stories. They each get two chapters before Westerfeld switches back. Usually, this kind of narrative intrigues me, but this time, it gave me whiplash. Their stories don’t interconnect until well past halfway through the novel. I found it frustrating that Westerfeld would build up to a climactic moment, then make me sit through two more chapters of another story.
Also, the book just didn’t interest me as much as I anticipated. Westerfeld always creates his own jargon, and usually I appreciate that and catch on pretty quickly. This time, I was confused about some of the terms throughout most of the book, and I never really did figure out what other words meant.
Even the characterization annoyed me. Honestly, Westerfeld has yet to create a really strong lead character that I thoroughly support. Tally, the protagonist of Uglies, was annoying at times in her indecisiveness. The vamps in Peeps and Last Days were intriguing, but not characters I really related to. I like Alek okay in this novel, but Deryn was just ridiculous.
Also, Deryn is a girl pretending to be a guy to get in on some military action. Hasn’t this plot been overdone? And Westerfeld never gives resolution. Throughout 400 pages, no one ever officially confirms that Deryn is a girl. One of the scientists suspects, but no one else does. That was frustrating, especially when the end of the book arrives. Westerfeld, of course, leaves it wide open for the sequel (and who knows when that will be released?). I definitely won’t buy that book in hardcover. I’ll probably just check it out from the library at some point.
Finally, Westerfeld is an evolutionist. Now, I firmly believe that one can enjoy a book and disagree with the author’s viewpoint. However, Westerfeld is more extreme in this than in any of his other books, and I found that it got in the way of the story. For example, Alek (the Clanker) uses the adjective “godless” probably 5 or 6 times in the novel to refer to the Darwinists’ evolutionary beasts. “Godless” is a strong word, one that should be used sparingly, lest it lose its power. When Westerfeld creates a character who directly opposes his own worldview, and that character starts overusing emotionally charged words, it hinders the narrative.
All this to say, steampunk has the potential to be aweseme, and I’m sad that my first literary venture into the subgenre was disappointing. If you’re interested in the genre, or in machinery, or in revised history, or Westerfeld, maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did. But I won’t exactly be recommending this novel anytime soon.