Scott Westerfield – Behemoth (Book Review)

Behemoth cover

Scott Westerfield - Behemoth

It takes some real talent to make alternate history, steampunk, and weird science all seem perfectly comprehensible, especially in a young adult book. But Scott Westerfield pulled it off and combined it with an exciting adventure, making Leviathan one of the best novels I read last year. In some respects, the sequel can’t help but fall short of the standards set by the initial book. Behemoth has to remain in a world that is now familiar, rather than dazzling its audience with new ideas in every chapter. However, that doesn’t mean it disappoints, either. This is a worthy sequel to a very good book.

Behemoth continues a story that, from a brief description, sounds like a pretty formulaic young adult book: A prince is in hiding from the conspiracy that killed his parents, and a young girl is disguised as a boy in order to enter the military. Though they should be on opposite sides of the war, they overcome their differences, become friends, and succeed at more adventures than any person (child or adult) should ever run into. This somewhat clichéd core is what grounds an otherwise too original book, though: This is an alternate-history World War One, in which the Germans and their allies have a strong steampunk culture, and the British side has perfected the biological arts to the point where even their warships are giant animals.

This technology was well thought-out and thoroughly examined in Leviathan, providing enough technical and cultural details to suspend any disbelief. It was aided immensely by Keith Thompson’s illustrations, done in the style of children’s novels from around the WWI era. The straightforward depictions of one or two scenes per chapter gave a face to all the marvels that the readers were being asked to accept. In some situations, a picture really can be worth one thousand words, and in this case, Thompson made all these elements work by effectively provided another novel’s worth of world-building.

Unfortunately for Behemoth, it doesn’t have an entire new world to flesh out, and it can’t help but suffer in comparison.That’s not to say that it doesn’t try, though. The warring powers continue to roll out new technology, and the heroes visit the exotic city of Istanbul. The way this city has incorporated both the biological and mechanical sciences into its culture, along with historically-based interactions between it and the warring powers, make this a fascinating addition to Westerfield’s world. He already proved that he can build a compelling system that is consistent down to the details, but here he manages the tricky task of expanding on an entire book’s worth of details while honoring the ones already established.

The plot is, of course, breezy and exciting. It focuses heavily on a self-contained plot arc, with new elements introduced at the start of the book and resolved by the end, but it still definitely is the second book of a trilogy. The overarching plots, both personal and world-shaking, all progress without ending, and the uneasy alliance between the Austrian and British characters is tested without being broken nor resolved. It’s fun, but it’s obviously setting up for the big payoff in the next book. Most of the plot, including the major struggle within Instanbul, is important in theory, but could probably be ignored without dulling the impact of the upcoming conclusion.

Yes, Behemoth suffers from a bit of a sophomore slump. There’s no real way around that, though, when the originality was part of what made the first book so great. Thankfully, that wasn’t the only thing that made Leviathan work, and all of the action, character building, and respect for the details of the world are present in this sequel. Behemoth adds as many new ideas as it can manage without seeming like a betrayal of the world it already established. For fans of the first book, there is no reason not to read this one.

Grade: B

  1. Westerfield is a MACHINE–a couple of successful franchise series, millions of fans and he’s prolific as hell. I’m wildly jealous.

    Sounds like the new book is another winner and I congratulate him. Hope he leaves a few readers for the rest of us hard-working scribblers.

    Keep readin’, chum…

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: