Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, illustrated by Keith Thompson

January 30, 2010

Finished: January 27, 2010

Source: Fyrefly’s book blog

Genre: Self-proclaimed YA steam-punk

On the Scales: welterweight text, heavyweight pictures

After reading this book I did something I almost never do: looked it up on google and read a media review.  I know I like to read book blogs, and I know they benefit publishers and (one hopes) authors in promoting good books at a grass-roots level, but until I read this review I didn’t have a sense of how they fit into the greater scheme of things . . . capitalized things like Justice, Standards, and the Fate of Fiction.

Writers love to hate publishers’ darlings like Scott Westerfeld–just look at the free-for-all J.K. Rowling inspires among otherwise mature authors of “grownup” books–but this was a critical review, and it was totally snarky!  It was also (a surprise considering the caliber of the publication) not written very well, by someone who showed no particular understanding of the genre!  Naming no names, you can read it in a newspaper that begins with “NY” and ends with “Times.”

Ooh, but the best part was the end.  The reviewer had to publish a correction of a fact he’d got wrong, and retract one of his criticisms with an apology.

I don’t know what Scott Westerfeld himself thought of this sourpuss review, and I don’t much care (though I do like to imagine him being the one who got to call up the editor and inform him of the mistake!).  Scott Westerfeld is a big boy.  Scott Westerfeld is doing okay.  I care about all the people who look to big newspaper reviewers, who must be really smart since they’re working for a big newspaper, to tell them whether a book is worth reading. No, the internet doesn’t need another voice chiming in on such a popular book.  This does make me wonder if it’s worth my time, personally, to add my two cents, but I am glad of the general din.  I’m glad of the easy access to different perspectives.  It warms my heart every time I remember I can get online and read what normal people are thinking about their reading, and that they are thinking such interesting things!  I don’t meet people like that in real life.  They are informed and courteous.  Reading their reviews is a little like getting to travel back in time.  In my mind, they are sitting at writing desks with inkwells, cocking their heads over a phrase in a letter to a friend.

Having said all that, I should probably say something nice about Leviathan, huh?

It’s a good book.  Westerfeld did his research.  Der Mann went through a WWI phase a while back.  I heard enough of his audiobooks and his descriptions of his reading to be able to sniff out lazy WWI history pretty well.

It was really strange to read an illustrated novel.  It must have been years.  No, I take that back: I read George DuMaurier’s Trilby sometime in 2009.  This was like going back to my childhood in the 80’s, when libraries were still hanging on to some of the children’s and young adult novels written at the tail end of the age of black-and-white spot illustrations–the 1960’s say, especially if the books were British.  That would have been before they stopped putting illustrations in chapter books unless they were written for kids so young they couldn’t do without–easy-readers, and so on.  And those were usually just bad ink washes.

All I can say is, wow, fame must be good for something, because Leviathan got the royal treatment!  Thompson’s pictures are every bit as good as William Pene du Bois’, and in fact reminded me of very much of du Bois’ work. They also have a bit of the emaciated Trina Schart Hyman style, which made me enjoy his renderings of people less than I did his war machines and compositions.  I don’t object to the convention of emaciated figures on moral grounds, they just look like marionettes to me, which makes it harder for me to empathize with the characters.  And Daryn and Alec were drawn awfully kiddish-ly, for 15-year-olds.

Keith Thompson read the whole book and absorbed all the details.  It didn’t feel as if he’d used Scott Westerfeld’s verbal world as a springboard for creating his own, separate visual one.  It felt as if he’d entered the text and and chronicled it.  In a picture of a street scene where Alec was described as slipping on dropped onions and potatoes, sure enough, there was a little bitty onion lying among the realistically rendered piles of horse dung.  The figured endpaper maps of Westerfeld’s Europe at war blew me away.  What a labor of love!  Look for the John Bauer tribute in Scandinavia.

Honestly, I don’t know how well I’d have been able to picture Westerfeld’s living and nonliving war machines without the artist’s help.  I read it at breakneck speed because I had to get it back to the library for the next person in the queue.  (Der Mann and I were going to read it aloud together, but kept putting it off, because it had turned out not to be a very good read-aloud book).  It was peppered with Westerfeld’s usual witicisms, natural dialog, and clear descriptions of action.  Daryn’s pluck may be conventional, but not in a stale way.  I liked her thoughts on the the relentless power-jockeying involved in masquerading as a boy.  Her voice was convincing.  I could hear her talking with a real Glaswegian accent.  I’m hoping there’ll be more space to develop her character in the following books.

This first installment was really just about setting the stage, and helping you get your bearings in the world, and some cool fights and escapes.  I can tell the fights and the escapes were supposed to be the best part.  For me, they weren’t, but I’m reserving judgement.  So far this promises to be one the really good Westerfelds, and not one of the lazy-ass ones that had put me a wee bit off him of late.

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10 Responses to “Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, illustrated by Keith Thompson”

  1. Jenny said

    I haven’t read any Westerfeld yet, despite the blogosphere’s enormous love-fest for him. I am a little nervous because steampunk is a genre that has let me down oh so many times and broken my heart although I want to love it. Care to distinguish for me between the good Westerfelds and the lazy-ass ones? I would appreciate the recommendations. 🙂

    • trapunto said

      Good Westerfelds:
      Peeps
      So Yesterday
      Midnighters: The Secret Hour (and the next, but not the others)
      The Risen Empire (being the first of his duo of books for adults, I can’t remember if I liked the second because I mix it up with John C. Wright’s Phaeton books)
      Uglies and Pretties. Skip the other two.

      You know, making the list, I think I can see what the good Westerfelds have in common. There is a special sort of low-key humor in them that has to do with the absurdity of the situations he’s presenting, with all the right details right make them seem real. Almost deadpan. You get the feeling that he is sharing a joke with you even when he’s being serious. It may have something to do with growing up in Texas.

  2. My wife LURVES Mr W. This was my first of his books, and I was kind of meh over it. IT was clever. The Glasgewegian accent was cute, you’re right. The endpapers were beautiful and had strong geek appeal. The technology was clever. But I just wasn’t smart enough to love the characters – by the end, I was mildly interested to see if the ship would go up, and TRYING but failing to really care if the two main characters got together… I’m not very good at adventure stories, they kind of go over my head…

    • trapunto said

      Thank you for visiting my site! I get the meh. If Leviathan had been my first Westerfeld, I might have said, “Oh, he’s one of THOSE writers,” and possibly not got around to reading any more. It’s just, I know from his other books the kinds of good things he may have up his sleeve.

      Alec and Daryn seem a really long way from getting together. Love is the last thing they have on their minds. Inheriting an empire, surviving a war, building a military career in disguise as a man–pretty all-absorbing concerns. I suppose they’re going to, though. I’d like it if they didn’t, just to buck the convention. Or if they did, and it turned out to be a mistake.

  3. Aarti said

    I haven’t read any Westerfeld and for some reason (I’m embarrassed to admit) I completely missed the fact that this was an illustrated novel. It reminds me in that way of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in which the pictures are integral to the story. Apparently that book was made into an audiobook as well- I’m not sure how that was even possible.

    That said, I do want to read this one, but I think I might wait until I’ve forgotten about all the hype it’s gotten. Which, er, may take a long while!

    • trapunto said

      I understand about wanting to wait until the hype dies down. Sometimes that problem solves itself for me. If I get on the library queue for something really popular, then wait for each of the 80 people in line before me to read one of the library’s half dozen copies, by the time I get it, it’s not such a big deal!

      You might try Midnighters: The Secret Hour in the mean time. It was written when he was still just a hopeful baby author, so it’s easier to put the hype out of your head.

  4. nymeth said

    In my mind, they are sitting at writing desks with inkwells, cocking their heads over a phrase in a letter to a friend. I just love this image so much 😀

    The only Westerfeld I’ve read so far was Peeps, which I loved. I’ll keep what you said about the good ones and the lazy ones in mind when selecting my next!

  5. Jodie said

    I’m reading it right now (at the free ballooning part) and enjoying it. I like that he’s really recreate the world a bit, instead of just dropping a few technological gadgets in as I’m feeling ready for a bit more of an advanced fantasy vision. Do you have an opinion on the Uglies series btw?

    • trapunto said

      Thanks for visiting my site. I liked Uglies and Pretties, but I thought the others devolved into pretty unrelieved gadgetry-for-gadgetry’s-sake and frenetic video game style adventure.

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