I love Scott Westerfeld’s past work: the Midnighters trilogy is a favorite, and So Yesterday and Peeps are both fun, imaginative stand-along novels. As a result, I was thrilled when I heard about his steampunk trilogy. The steampunk genre has always been centered on aesthetics, with visual art and clothes being it’s most exemplary mediums. The only really great work of steampunk fiction, in my opinion, is the Girl Genius webcomic series, and it’s not even straight steampunk. However, Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy is sadly lackluster, particularly given the fun setting. Like most steampunk novels, the ideas are fun but the execution has problems. To be precise, I’ve boiled it down to two.
First, the series has a lack of stakes. The main plot may be foreshadowed, though ham-handedly, but each individual event isn’t. As the chapters pass for Deryn and Alek aboard the airship Leviathan, they are buffeted by occurrences like storms and attacks from various countries’ powers that seem to roll one after another, with no serious consequences. Each book musters up a bit of a conflict towards the end, but each tome takes more time explaining how the world works than it does making us care about it.
Some plot arcs are built up, but fail to pay off, such as the perspicacious lorises that are mysterious eggs at the end of the first book, but have little-to-no use in the following books. The foreshadowing is weak, yet coincidences conspire to keep our heroes bumping randomly into each other and into important figures. Seriously, count all the coincidences. It’s the entire story.
Second, the series uses far too many repetitions of revelations. The main characters are keeping secrets from each other – the book starts with Alek hiding his heritage, and Deryn hiding her gender, but adds plenty more, most of which are discarded. Each secret is the mentioned whenever the opportunity arises, until I’m sick of hearing about it. I’m not going to forget about it, and I don’t need to hear Alek or Deryn’s inner thoughts about how they haven’t either. Then, as if that weren’t enough, they’ll start slowly telling people. Count Volger and Dr. Barlow are generally let in on the secret first, for no real reason other than to chew it over again, with perhaps a tiny bit more insight. Ultimately, it makes the books feel bloated, and I found myself skimming.
The concepts – that various 1900s countries would be dependent either on mechanical, steampunk inventions or on bio-engineered beasties – are always fun and plentiful. They just don’t tie into a meaningful plot except in rare instances. Perhaps the best chapter in the series is at the start of Goliath, when Deryn and a friend must dangle from the airship in an attempt to pick up a package from a giant bio-engineered fighting bear, which runs along the Siberian ground beneath them so that they can hook the packages on its back. It’s a vignette that’s both imaginative and, unlike most of the book, important to the plot: the packages are overweight and almost kill Deryn as the result of smuggled contraband that hides a secret. In this instance, the plot rises organically from the fun and adventure. Leviathan needed more of this, and less of the boring coincidences and secrets that plagued it.