Is it even possible for a book's tone to be both urgent and reflective? We're glad you asked, because the answer is yes. Look, there's a lot of action in this book. Every single chapter ends on some kind of cliffhanger, and Deryn and Alek are constantly trying to get away from something—or to something else—often while being shot at.
But apparently, this kind of living on the edge inspires a lot of reflection, you know, about family, friendship, the meaning of life—that sort of stuff. In short, the book is both awe-inspiring and aww-inspiring. See what we did there? We are just too clever.
For example, after loads of fighting each other and the German zeppelins, Deryn considers Alek's mental state:
Alek's sadness had been obvious from the beginning, Deryn reckoned.
She'd seen it when he'd woken her up the night of the wreck, his dark green eyes full of sorrow and fear. And yesterday when he'd told her about being an orphan—she should have known from his silences how raw the heartache was. (35.1-2)
Take a look through the book and note other points where the characters act and then think. It happens in almost every chapter—so much so, in fact, that if you can find a place where it doesn't, well, you just might want to write a paper about it.
Are we going to get any argument that this is an adventure novel for young adults? It's about two fifteen-year-olds who do nothing but hurl themselves into the path of danger. Adventure and young adults are the name of the game in this one—plus, no matter how thrilling things get, the language and plot stay pretty straightforward, which means it was written to be readily devoured by teen readers.
Now that we've established that, let's talk about historical fiction and fantasy. This book isn't straight up historical fiction. As we talk about in the "Setting" section, there's a twist to World War I as we know it—the whole Darwinists/Clankers thing—and this is where fantasy comes into play.
The thing about fantasy in this book, though, is that instead of wizards and dragons, it looks a whole lot more like steampunk. Steampunk is usually set in world that in some way resembles pre-World War I Europe, and there's the addition of—wait for it—steam-powered structures, like the walkers. Also goggles. Lots and lots of goggles. Notice how everybody in this book loves a good pair of goggles. It may not be the makings of traditional fantasy, but we are definitely asked to suspend our sense of reality as we know it for this one.
So Leviathan sounds big and scary and intimidating, thus making it an excellent name for a warship, right? That's definitely part of it, but this isn't the first time the word leviathan or a reference to the leviathan makes an appearance in literature. Not by a long shot.
In the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, the leviathan is a great sea monster. Unlike our friendly flying whale, though, the biblical leviathan is more like a demon or some kind of servant of hell. In popular culture, leviathan has come to mean any ginormous sea monster.
If you're on your political-theory toes, you might recognize Leviathan as the title of Thomas Hobbes's 1660 book on how society and government should work. Is Westerfeld trying to make a statement on how society and government should work in his book? What do you think?
If we're looking at the importance of the airship Leviathan to the book though, we have to say it deserves the title role because it's what brings everyone together in the end. As it does with its own complex ecosystem, the Leviathan eventually brings Clankers and Darwinists together to work for their own common good—and that right there is worth the title in its own right.
Seriously, who ends a book on a dude staring at some eggs? Answer: Someone who wants us to read the next book—Leviathan is only the first book in a trilogy, after all.
Alek gets one more chapter than Deryn, and in his final moment in the book, Dr. Barlow locks him in the machine room, where he's on egg duty making sure the remaining eggs stay warm and unbroken. He stares at the eggs, wondering what's so important about them and what kind of impact the unknown creatures inside could possibly have on the war (us too, Alek, us too).
We think it's significant that it's Alek and not Deryn who's standing there talking to eggs. This scene shows us that Alek has come a long way from fearing and hating Darwinists—he's doing a Darwinist job by keeping an eye on these eggs, and he doesn't seem too upset about it. Also, by realizing the eggs could impact the war, he takes a teeny-tiny step toward realizing that he's not the only person in the world who's responsible for it. What a concept.
Let's chat for a minute about what was going on in the real-world version of Europe in the summer of 1914. On June 28, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Princess Sophie, were assassinated. And while this didn't seem like such a big deal at first, it turned out to be a really big deal.
See, most European nations were involved in a tangled web of alliances, which basically means they had all sorts of agreements to help each other out in a fight. The assassination of the Archduke was the first domino to fall in a chain that had most of Europe bogged down in war by August.
Now let's take a look at more specific settings. Alek's story starts out in Austria, and then he runs around Central Europe in his walker for a month, trying to avoid being assassinated like his parents. Deryn's starting point is London, but she doesn't stay there long, so soon she's aboard the Leviathan, which is a setting all its own. Deryn and Alek collide (almost literally) in Switzerland, which, significantly, is a neutral nation—here, desperate for each other's help, the Clankers and Darwinists join forces to get the Leviathan back into the air.
We'd say setting is pretty important to our characters because whether they are Darwinists or Clankers is a huge part of identity for them. The idea of home is pretty important, too—Deryn feels at home aboard the Leviathan, while Alek is left searching for a new home after his old one becomes too dangerous.
Leviathan gives us a lot to take in: new vocabulary, a world that's similar to—but definitely different—from our own, plus loads of action and dialogue. General knowledge of the causes of World War I might enhance your reading of the book, but it's not necessary for you to enjoy it. The plot moves fast, and there's a lot of information to keep track of, but again, the plot moves fast, so there's something new on every page. The things that make the book challenging are the same things that make it super fun to read.
We don't need to worry too much about where or when something is happening because the narrator makes figuring that out easy—while he or she jumps back and forth from Deryn's to Alek's perspectives, in general the plot moves along in a linear way.
But get out your listening ears, Shmoopsters, because these people can talk. There's as much dialogue as there is action in this book, and most of it goes a good long way toward explaining how this world works and what's going on. For example, not really up on your World War I politics? Just check out the conversation in which Alek and Volger explain it—while sword fighting—in Chapter 9:
"And who is most closely allied with Russia?" Volger asked, not even a little breathless.
"Britain," Alek said.
"Not so." Volger's blade slipped inside Alek's guard, whacking his right arm hard.
"Ouch!" Alek dropped his guard and rubbed the wound. "For heaven's sake, Volger! Are you teaching me fencing or diplomacy?"
Volger smiled. "You are in need of instruction in both, obviously."
"But the British navy command met with the Russians last year! Father said it drove the Germans wild with worry."
"That is not an alliance, Alek. Not yet." Volger raised his sword. "So who is allied with Russia, then?" (9.69-75)
We get more of the same of this for several pages, and we have to say it's a pretty clever way to include all this somewhat snooze-worthy diplomacy information—a history lesson disguised as a sword fight is much better than, say, a boring lecture. This action/info pairing happens quite a bit. You can also tune in to any of the many conversations Dr. Barlow and Deryn have about Darwinist science—and when you do, we guarantee you'll learn a lot about what's up with the world of Leviathan.
You know what's guaranteed to be chock full of symbolism? A family crest. After all, their main purpose is pretty much to announce how cool and powerful a family is—and the Hapsburgs' crest is no different:
Alek looked out at the stormwalker crouched in the courtyard. On its breastplate was his family crest: the double-headed eagle devised of mechanikal parts. As he was growing up, the symbol had always surrounded Alek—on flags, furniture, even the pockets of his nightgown—assuring him of who he was. But now it only filled him with despair. (21.30)
You know what else is double-headed in a way? Alek's family. He's got his royal dad and his non-royal mom. And instead of their union following the traditional (read: natural) path, they've forged a non-traditional (read: constructed—or mechanical) marriage. Funny how fitting the Hapsburg crest is given how resistant the family line was to Franz Ferdinand's decision to marry Princess Sophie.
Even as he escapes, Alek carries the Hapsburg crest with him on the walker's breastplate and stamped on the gold bars Volger carries aboard. The crest's most momentous moment comes though, when he stands in front of it during the battle with the German zeppelins:
Then Alek realized where he was standing—right in front of the walker's breastplate, the Hapsburg coat of arms proclaiming exactly who and what he was… (33.37)
The Hapsburg crest is a symbol of Alek's family, and Alek's family is a pretty big deal in this book. In some ways, they're the people Alek loves to hate. He's forever cut off from everyone but his parents because of his mother's non-royal blood, and yet he's continuously trying to be accepted by the Hapsburgs as one of them, even though we suspect that Emperor Franz Joseph, his great-uncle, was behind the attacks on his parents and is actually trying to kill him. Being unable to avoid the crest, then, mirrors how haunted by his family legacy Alek is.
In one of the book's final scenes, Volger and Alek throw the gold bars—and the seal along with them—overboard as the Leviathan struggles skyward ahead of a German attack. They hang on to one bar, but even so, we think this is a pretty significant moment symbolically, and the moment when Alek really begins to form a new identity outside of his troubled relationship with his family. He throws the crest overboard, literally and metaphorically lightening his load.
As the reason for her diplomatic mission to the Ottoman Empire, Dr. Barlow's eggs are symbolic of mystery and intrigue, and also of life itself, since they are eggs, after all. The value Dr. Barlow places on her eggs is a metaphor for the value Darwinists place on their science, which creates new life forms out of existing life forms. Check out Deryn's first glimpse of the secret cargo:
It took a moment to see into the box's shadows. But as her eyes adjusted, twelve rounded shapes resolved in the soft glow of the wormlamp.
"Ma'am…are those eggs?"
"Indeed they are, and quite close to hatching." Dr. Barlow scratched Tazza's head and let out a sigh. "Or at least, they were. Most are broken. This wasn't the smooth ride you promised me, Mr. Sharp." (24.17-19)
We may be stretching things a bit here, but we think the fragility of the eggs could also symbolize the fragility of Europe's peace and the fragility of Dr. Barlow's diplomatic mission. Do you agree?
Responsibility for the eggs is also the thing that brings Alek and Deryn together—you might even say it hatches their friendship. Used to keeping secrets, it must be a relief for both of them to try to figure out a secret instead. Here's Alek's take on his new Darwinist responsibility:
Alek turned to look at the softly glowing cargo box, wondering what was in the eggs that was so important. What sort of fabricated creature could replace a mighty warship? How could a beast no bigger than a top hat keep an empire out of this war?
"What's inside you?" Alek asked softly.
But the eggs just sat there, not answering at all. (41.44-46)
We may not know what's inside the eggs as this first installment in the trilogy comes to a close, but it's a pretty safe bet that we're going to find out in a later book. So add potential to the list of things these eggs symbolize—though that just might change as the sage unfolds.
Part of the Latin motto of the Hapsburg family, Dr. Barlow says bella gerant alii to Alek to trick him into confirming her suspicions about his identity. Alek later explains to Deryn:
"It's called Latin, you simpleton. Bella gerant alli means 'Let others wage war.' She was saying we don't have to fight each other." (25.105)
This idea becomes important as Alek's crew and the people of the Leviathan realize they don't have to be at war just because their countries are. Instead, they are able to create a mutually beneficial, if cautious, alliance. Looks like the influence of the Hapsburgs crosses borders.
Our third person narrator jumps between Alek's perspective and Deryn's perspective every two chapters, so we assume this person has some kind of sweet warp-speed traveling device that allows for travel across Europe in no time flat. For the record, we want one of those.
The narrator is very sympathetic to both protagonists, meaning that he or she is on their side, loves the things they love, wants the things they want, and generally thinks Alek and Deryn are pretty cool. In fact, the narrator is so closely aligned with Alek and Deryn that it's hard to separate the narrator from the characters. Take a look at this passage:
"God's wounds," he swore. This wasn't a machine at all, but a Darwinist creation! (22.6)
Notice that the narrator doesn't say anything to defend the Darwinists or point out that Alek is being a bit prejudiced. Nope, the narrator sticks right with what Alek thinks and doesn't jump ship to make judgments.
Well mostly secrets, with some lies thrown into the mix in order to keep those secrets. Leviathan presents us with two main characters, both of whom are keeping major secrets about their identity. Deryn Sharp is a girl who joins the British Air Service disguised as a boy, and Alek is a prince on the run from the family who's out to kill him. There's a continent between Alek and Deryn, but we get the sense that their paths are going to collide—perhaps literally—since they're both moving around in powerful war machines.
While Alek and his companions escape to the safety of a remote castle in the Swiss Alps, Deryn becomes a midshipman on the Leviathan, where she soon learns what war is all about when the airship is so badly damaged in battle that it crash lands on a glacier high in the—you guessed it—Swiss Alps. When Deryn and Alek finally meet, the clash between Darwinists and Clankers seems like it will be too great to be overcome, until Deryn and Alek find a way to turn the crash into opportunities for both sides. This is all heading somewhere…
Things come to a head in the great battle against two German zeppelins on the surface of the glacier. Britain is at war with Germany, and Austria-Hungary usually allies with Germany, so Alek and his gang—as Clankers—are enemies of the British airship. However, the Germans are also out to kill Alek for his grand-uncle, the emperor. Deryn, Alek, and their companions end up fighting on the same side to drive back the German zeppelins, showing us that enmity isn't as simple as it can appear.
Things are calm for now, but everyone knows the Germans will be back: They know there's a wounded airship on that glacier, and they know Alek's there too, so there's pretty much no way that a return trip isn't in order as far as they're concerned. Darwinists and Clankers realize they'll have to work together to get out of dodge, so Alek and his crew help the British engineers fit their totaled Clanker walker's engines to the Leviathan. Meanwhile, Alek and Deryn realize that they're friends no matter what side their countries are on. Aw.
With the help of the Clanker engines, the Leviathan makes it back into the sky just in time, as a German attack force appears in the mountains. Alek has joined Deryn on board the Leviathan, so now their fates are irrevocably tied together. Everything seems tied up, but there are still mysteries to solve: this is, after all, the first book in a trilogy.