Posts Tagged ‘ Scott Westerfield ’

Scott Westerfield – Goliath (Book Review)

Goliath cover

Scott Westerfield - Goliath

Goliath concludes the trilogy that Scott Westerfield began in Leviathan. That first book was a revelation, being both a thrilling adventure and the introduction to an original world. The pace faltered a little in Behemoth, if only because the sequel couldn’t seem as new and surprising as the first one. But this third book makes good on the promise of the series, bringing everything to a fun and satisfying conclusion.

The alternate-WWI premise, with a steampunk empire battling against genetic engineering, is now well-established, so the book jumps right into the plot. Girl-disguised-as-boy Deryn finds her web of lies becoming more difficult to maintain, and Austrian prince in hiding Alek finds a new hope as he struggles with mixed loyalties. However, Goliath would have benefitted from more introductory action. While the other two books had life-or-death struggles within the first couple chapters, this just sets up the long-running plots for the books. Even when Deryn comes face-to-face with vicious Russian bears of war, it feels strangely safe.

Yes, there are Russian bears which have been engineered as war machines. There are also mechanical walkers in the Mexican revolution, flying platforms over New York City, Japanese war-beasts, and a burgeoning film industry. Goliath may not have a new world to introduce, but it explores as much of it as the previous two books put together. It’s intriguing and, even more importantly, easy to accept, as Westerfield has made a world that feels internally consistent and fits cleverly in with real history. (The afterward, as always, is well worth reading, as it explains both the little elements of reality that the book makes use of and the places where it deviates from our history. While no one would mistake this for a historical novel, it has real things to teach and makes the actual events as intriguing as the fictional ones.)

Fortunately, the slower beginning pays off. The plots it sets in motion mix with the arc of the full trilogy to create an exciting, high-stakes second half. There was always an pleasant fantasy to the story of children hiding their identities in a war, but the reality of this is deadly not just for them, but for the people and nations they love. These dangers seem real by the end, and both heroes find themselves needing to decide a new future path for themselves. They grow up without betraying the characters that they have always been.

The romantic subplot that began to form in the second book plays a larger role here, and it is also effective. I am not generally a fan of storybook love, and I even groaned a little when I read the opening dedication (“To everyone who loves a long-secret romance, revealed at last”), but I have to admit that it worked here. There are no easy answers or convenient plot devices. Every step forward in the potential romance involves sacrifice and in-character decisions.

One defining part of the Leviathan trilogy has always been Keith Thompson’s illustrations, which give the books a period atmosphere and also help the reader visualize the stranger aspects of this world. Though the series no longer introduces completely new concepts every chapter, the art is still an integral part of the book. This book actually provides more illustrations than either of the previous ones, fleshing out the story and providing visual hooks.

Goliath is an appropriate ending to a standout Young Adult series: Providing payoff to the initial hooks and interesting new elements of its own, this deftly guides the story (both for our heroes and the alternate war-torn world) to a well-earned ending that never feels easy to predict.

Grade: B+

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

The Year In Books (Part 1)

For the past several years, I’ve read a lot fewer books than I used to. Most people blame this on a lack of time, but my undoing was comic books. Comics come out on a weekly schedule, each one updating something from the last month. The system is set up to make sure that you keep up on them, while it’s easy to put off a novel for a while, since it will still be on the shelves months, if not years, later.

I realized how bad this had gotten a year ago, when my birthday and Christmas presents included almost 20 books, but I’d only read about 5 all year. I decided to make more of an effort on novels for the year.

In the end, I read 19 books in 2010. It’s not an incredible number, especially since several of them were novellas or children’s books. Considering that I did it without dropping back on my comics reading, though, I’m happy. This year I’m planning on 25-30.

Rather than going back and doing full articles on things I read in the past, here are capsule reviews. It’s still pretty long, so I’ve split it into two parts. The books I read in the first half of the year are below, and I’ll follow up with part two in a couple days. Continue reading