Corporal Bauer had the uncanny eyesight of an expert gunner. Two weeks ago he'd been on his way to commanding a machine of his own. Master Hoffman had been the Hapsburg Guards' best engineer. But now the two were nothing more than fugitives.
Alek had slowly come to understand everything his men had given up for him: their ranks, families, and futures. If they were caught, the other four would hang as deserters. Prince Aleksander himself would disappear more quietly, of course, for the good of the empire. (10.9-10)
Alek might think himself alone in the world due to that whole newly-orphaned, people-are-trying-to-kill-him thing, but these are the kind of companions we'd want with us in a fight. They've proven their loyalty, but is loyalty the same as friendship? Can Alek be friends with these men?
Finally he cleared his throat. "I'm glad I didn't shoot you, Dylan."
"Aye, me too," the boy said simply, and turned away. (26.109-110)
Too much emotion here? If you're trying to think of something nice to say to your new sort-of friend, expressing positive feelings about the fact that you chose not to shoot them is one way to go.
In a way Dylan was the sort of boy Alek would have wanted to be, if he hadn't been born the son of an archduke. (30.53)
And here's what Alek can't quite work up the feels to say aloud: Dylan is a pretty cool dude.
As they shook hands again, Alek felt a burden lift, knowing that Dylan would keep his word. After a month of being betrayed—by his family, his country's allies, and his own government—it was a relief to trust someone. (30.84)
It takes a lot for Alek to trust anyone, apparently, so this is a mark in Dylan's favor. Also, check back to the first quote in this theme. Did Alek not trust the four guys who were with him? Or did he trust them, but in a different way? Are there different kinds of trust?
As the night drew on, Alek began to wonder when next he would see an unfamiliar face. After hiding for five weeks, he'd already half forgotten what it was like to meet a new person, or to make a new friend.
What if he were stuck in this castle for years? (30.93-94)
Did Alek make a lot of new friends before? He never once mentions anyone he left behind or anyone from his old life he'd like to see again—in fact, it seems like this whole friendship game is pretty new to him.
"But I'm what split my family," Alek said. "I unsettled everything, and that gave the Germans their opening."
"You're more than just that, though." Deryn took his hand. "You're the one who came across the ice to save my bum from frostbite."
Alek looked at her, wiped his eyes, and smiled. "Maybe that too." (35.56-58)
Sad times, Alek, sad times. But less sad, because Deryn reminds him—or maybe is the first person ever to tell him—that he's not only what his family history says he is. That's what friends are for, right?
"But I…want to thank you, Dylan."
Alek raised his hands, and for a moment Deryn thought he would cry again. But he only said, "For knowing who I am." (35.67-69)
Excuse our loud and obnoxious sniffling—this is just too precious. But what does Alek mean? Who is he? Is he just referring to his identity as his father's heir/not heir, or to something deeper, perhaps to the person who walked across a glacier to help a fallen airship?
"What could be more important than your birthright?"
Volger asks the question, and Alek answers it. This shows the deep rift in their thinking: Volger is determined to protect Alek and his path to the throne, but Alek is making his own path and forming his own alliances. What's the difference between allies and friends? Can they be the same thing? Or is Alek just using a word he thinks Volger will understand better than friends?
The captain leaned back and smiled. "You're rather friendly with young Alek, aren't you?"
"Aye, sir. He's a good lad."
"So he seems. A young boy like that needs friends, especially having run away from home and country." The captain lifted an eyebrow. "Sad, isn't it?" (40.20-22)
Oh, Captain Sneakypants Hobbes. We guess you have to do your duty, but it makes you seem like a jerk when you try to use Deryn's friendship with Alek to pump her for information.
Deryn opened her mouth, but no words came out—something was shifting inside her. On her way here she'd hoped Alek would give her permission to tell the captain, solving the whole dilemma. But now an entirely different desire was creeping into her mind.
What she really wanted, Deryn realized, was for Alek to know that she'd lied for him, that she would go on lying for him. (40.58-59)
There are a few hints that Deryn's feelings for Alek are treading dangerously near the more-than-friends zone, and this is one of them—but it's also evidence of the fact that she wants him to trust her. She wants him to value their developing friendship as much as she does.
Alek bit his lip. Father had never allowed him to be photographed or even sketched, and now Alek knew why—in case he would ever need to hide. And yet he'd still given himself away. (13.41)
It's not Alek's appearance that betrays him—it's his tongue. No matter what he looks like, he can't help but sound like a nobleman. Deryn and Alek both change their appearances—Deryn to hide her gender, and Alek to hide his social class—but both also realize that a good disguise is about more than appearances. They have to work on changing their behavior, too.
As another female, Dr. Barlow might notice a few odd things the other crewmen hadn't. And she was a clever-boots, with all that science under her bowler. If anyone was going to guess Deryn's little secret, it would be this lady boffin. (16.92)
Another woman on board is definitely something Deryn didn't bargain on. It's easy enough to hide her gender from a bunch of men, but hiding from another woman is going to be a different trick entirely. Is it odd that Dr. Barlow never seems to figure it out?
She'd been such a ninny to muck about with razors. This was how she'd always been caught out in lies—making things too barking complicated.
"I…I'm not sure what you mean, ma'am."
"How old are you, Mr. Sharp?"
Deryn blinked. She couldn't speak.
"With a face that smooth, not sixteen," Dr. Barlow continued. "Perhaps fourteen? Or younger?"
A squick of hope began to trickle through Deryn. Had the lady boffin guessed the wrong secret? She decided to tell the truth: "Barely fifteen, ma'am." (19.47-52)
We're so focused on Deryn's gender-bending disguise that we don't think about the other reason she's not allowed in the military: she's not old enough. Dr. Barlow definitely notices that something's up, but she attributes anything less than masculine about Deryn's appearance to age instead of gender. Hmm… Maybe Dr. Barlow isn't quite as smart as she thinks she is.
Volger snorted. "Aleksander, you don't trust a mere boy with the greatest secret in the empire." (21.60)
Even if that secret is about that mere boy? Apparently not. We can't say we blame Volger for not telling Alek about the pope's letter earlier. While we can see that Alek is maturing, he's done some pretty irresponsible things on the way to Switzerland (see Lienz), and we don't know that he could have kept the fact that he's the true heir to Austria-Hungary under wraps.
"Well, then," Volger said. "Let's pretend that I don't know English. We might learn something interesting if the Darwinists think I can't understand them." (29.10)
Volger, you crafty cat—like anybody's going to believe you're not the savviest guy in the room. It's so funny to watch Volger pretend to be dependent on Alek's translations because the person he becomes in the meeting is so different from his typical character. Also, pretending you can't understand the enemy = oldest trick in the book. A book which Volger probably wrote.
Alek didn't answer, gritting his teeth. Every word out of his mouth only betrayed more information.
He wondered if the Darwinists had already guessed who he was. The assassination was still front-page news, and the rift between his father and the emperor was no secret. Luckily, the Austrian papers had never revealed that Alek was missing. The government seemed to want his disappearance kept quiet, at least until it could be made permanent. (30.20-21)
Talking just gets you in trouble when you've got any kind of secret. This time, it's not his accent that betrays Alek but his words themselves. Dr. Barlow is way good at asking leading questions, and Alek consistently follows her lead.
She held his gaze a moment. "I can't babble all our secrets to you, Alek. But it should be obvious that I am a scientist, not a soldier."
"And a diplomat?"
Dr. Barlow smiled. "We all do our duty." (34.46-47)
Very sneaky, Dr. Barlow. Poor Alek: he tries to beat her at her own game and ask leading questions of his own, but Dr. Barlow is just way too quick for him.
"Please, ma'am," Alek said, trying to keep his voice from shaking. "Don't tell anyone else who I am. It might complicate things." (34.74)
Ugh, that moment when you are one hundred percent busted. We feel bad for Alek here because he is totally at Dr. Barlow's mercy, which goes to show how much good being a prince will do you sometimes. This crack in his armor reminds us of when he wakes up in the gun turret after Klopp and Volger sedate him—again he sounds less like the heir to an empire than a scared little boy.
This was the moment, of course, when duty required her to tell the captain all she knew—that Alek was the son of Archduke Ferdinand, and that the Germans were behind his father's murder. Alek had said it himself: this wasn't just family business. The assassinations had started the whole barking war, after all.
And now Lord Churchill himself was asking about it!
But she'd promised Alek not to tell.
She couldn't break her promise—not like this, without even talking to Alek first.
Deryn saluted smartly. "I'm happy to do whatever I can, sir."
And she left without telling the captain any of it. (40.28-30, 32-34)
Deryn has a tough dilemma here. On one hand, she has a duty to tell the captain everything she knows, but on the other, she told Alek she wouldn't tell. It seems no matter what she does, she's betraying someone—so she'll have to decide whom she minds betraying the least.
"You don't have to," Deryn argued, but she knew Alek wouldn't listen. He wouldn't believe she was safe from hanging unless he knew the truth. Strangest of all, she almost wanted to tell him, to trade her secret for his. (40.85)
Alek is afraid Deryn will hang for lying for him and insists on going to the captain then and there, which speaks really well for his sense of responsibility for other people. The more interesting part of this quote though, is that Deryn, who has been guarding her secret with her life, wants to tell someone now. She knows the risks, and she still wants Alek to know who she really is, which shows that she places a huge amount of trust in him.
Father always said that, with war on the horizon, everyone in the household had to be prepared. (2.13)
The idea that war is coming overshadows the whole first half of the novel—everyone is looking toward it and expecting it. It seems to us like this might make it easier to prevent, but we guess not when you're a nation-state with alliances all tied up like last year's Christmas lights.
"Assassins struck twice in the morning," Volger said. "Serb schoolboys hardly older than you, first with bombs and then with pistols. Both times they failed. Then last night a feast was given in your father's honor, and he was toasted for his bravery. But poison took your parents in the night." (5.35)
The assassination of Alek's parents really is the first major step on the road to war—as the assassination of the real Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Princess Sophie was in real life. And to think: people thought it was no big deal at the time.
His Serene Highness, Prince Aleksander of Hohenberg, was alone now. He might never see his home again. The armed forces of two empires were hunting him, set against one walker and four men. (6.41)
We'll be honest: we do not like those odds. If we weren't sure that Alek was one of the protagonists, we'd be pretty worried about him.
"Do not drop your guard until the other man does, Your Highness. Not in time of war." (9.59)
Wise words from Volger, who always gives Alek good advice, even if he wraps it up in an annoying-old-dude-who's-always-right-sandwich. Now if only Alek would listen…
Before Deryn had a chance to wonder what that could mean, she noticed a distant clanging over the roar of the hives.
"Do you hear that, ma'am?" she said.
"The general alarm?" Dr. Barlow nodded sadly. "I'm afraid so. It would appear Britain and Germany are finally at war." (19.56-58)
And now for the moment we've all been waiting for—well, at least some of the Leviathan's crew members have been waiting for it anyway. Sometimes when you're waiting for something bad to happen, you just want to get it over with already.
Deryn felt herself start to shake, unsure whether it was the cold or the shock of battle. She'd been aboard only a month, but this was like watching her family dying, her home burning down in front of her. (20.84)
Here we have a lull in the battle—a battle during which ten German aeroplanes have attacked the Leviathan repeatedly, leaving the airship pretty torn up. The Leviathan is Deryn's home and family, the one place she feels like she's doing what she was meant to do—and seeing that attacked is a big deal.
That young airman, Dylan, might have frozen to death if he'd lain in the snow all night. But Alek had saved him from frostbite. Maybe this was how you stayed sane in wartime: a handful of noble deeds amid the chaos. (25.9)
Maybe Alek has hit on something here. Even though he's too small to do much to influence the whole course of the war, he can do small amounts of good in order to make a big difference to someone else.
Alek squinted and covered his face. The whole airship glowed from within as it rose up, carried back into the sky by its own heat. The aluminum skeleton inside was melting. The Kondor twisted, then broke in the middle, a huge mushroom of fire bellowing from the split.
And then the two halves were swirling downward again.
They seemed to hit the ground gently, but the snow shrieked and hissed as melted metal and burning hydrogen turned it to steam. White clouds billowed around the two halves of wreckage, and Alek heard awful cries over the roars of flame. (33.42-44)
Deryn's been threatening us with what happens when fire gets too near hydrogen for most of the novel, and now we know. Fortunately it's not the Leviathan going down in flames; it's the Clanker zeppelin attacking it. Even though we know these people are the enemies of our main characters, we can't help but feel sorry for them—which just might be the point.
She stared out the window. "And our crew is smaller than it once was."
Alek nodded. He'd seen the shrouded bodies outside, and the men laboring to bury them in the iron-hard ice beneath the snow. (34.31-32)
Because this exchange between Alek and Dr. Barlow takes place a hundred pages after the Leviathan's first big battle of the war, we have almost forgotten that there were casualties from that battle that needed to be dealt with. This brings us back to the reality of what happens in war.
Deryn frowned. In all her weighing of promises and loyalties, she hadn't thought that far ahead. "Well… not quite the enemy. We're not at war with Austria, the captain says."
"Not yet. But from what Volger's heard on the wireless, it'll only be a week or so." He smiled sadly. "Funny, all those politicians trying to decide if we're enemies or not."
"Aye, barking hilarious," Deryn murmured. (40.66-68)
We've known throughout the novel that Deryn and Alek are on two different sides of the philosophical split between Darwinists and Clankers, so we've sort of assumed that they are enemies to this point. However, this reminds us that this actually has yet to be decided, as much by the characters themselves as by their nations.
Jaspert tied his airman's neckerchief. "Get your slops on and we'll see what you look like. All that studying's going to waste if your tailoring don't persuade them."
Deryn stared sullenly down at the pile of borrowed clothes. After all her studying and everything she'd learned when her father was alive, the middy's test would be easy. But what was in her head wouldn't matter unless she could fool the Air Service boffins into believing her name was Dylan, not Deryn. (3.16-17)
Ugh, this is so not fair, and it makes us seriously sad that Deryn has to change her identity just so she can do what she loves. 1914 was a while ago and a lot has changed, but are there other situations in which people have to lie about some fundamental part of their identity in order to do what they want?
Since getting on the bus with Jaspert, Deryn's skin had itched with wondering what she looked like to strangers. Could they see through her boy's slops and shorn hair? Did they really think she was a young recruit on his way to the air proving ground? Or did she look like some lassie with a few screws loose, playing dress-up in her brother's old clothes? (3.30)
This has got to be the most nerve-wracking thing. Why do you think everyone is so quick to accept that Deryn is a boy? No one ever seems to even question it, not even Dr. Barlow. Is she just really good at her disguise, or do people see what they expect to see?
Deryn felt brilliant, rising through the air at the center of everyone's attention, like an acrobat aloft on a swing. She wanted to make a speech:
"Hey, all you sods, I can fly and you can't! A natural airman, in case you haven't noticed. And in conclusion, I'd like to add that I'm a girl and you can all get stuffed!" (4.42-43)
We don't blame Deryn in the least for being a little bit angry. After all, the only chance she has of making this speech is in her head while sky high in a Huxley.
Her eyes darted back and forth between the rolled-up yellow cloth and the approaching storm, wondering what a boy would do. (4.69)
Deryn's first real challenge is whether or not to send out her panic signal when she sees the storm, which the men on the ground can't see yet. What would a boy do? Would a boy react to this situation differently than a girl? Is it even a question of gender or more of personality?
Jaspert had been right: Her diddies weren't the tricky part. Water was heavy, so bathing on an airship was done quick with rags and a pail. And the toilets aboard the Leviathan ("heads" in Service-speak) were in the dark gastric channel, which carried off clart to turn it into ballast and hydrogen. So hiding her body was easy… It was her brain she'd had to shift. (11.22)
Sounds like Deryn is pretty lucky overall, though we do wonder how she manages to change clothes with that whole shared cabin situation. What do you think Deryn has had to change about the way she thinks and reacts? Is this a natural difference between boys and girls, or is it caused more by different experiences?
It was bloody exhausting, being a boy.
Not that all of it was bad. Her airman's uniform was miles better than any girl's clothes. The boots clomped gloriously as she stormed to signals practice or firefighting drills, and the jacket had a dozen pockets, including special compartments for her command whistle and rigging knife. And Deryn didn't mind the constant practice in useful skills like knife throwing, swearing, and not showing pain when punched.
But how did boys keep this up their whole barking lives? (11.24-26)
Good question, Deryn. We're wondering how you plan to keep this up your whole barking life, as well. What are your plans for after the Air Service?
Deryn groaned. Her aching muscles could've done with another minute's rest. But she'd laughed at Newkirk, so the endless competition was on again. She hoisted her feed bag and followed him toward the bow.
Barking hard work, being a boy. (11.44-45)
There's a lot of competition among the middies, which Deryn interprets as part of being a boy. Do girls participate in this sort of "endless competition," too?
The captain hadn't said anything about who'd been aboard longest. He was looking at airmanship, so he wanted to keep his best men.
And that's exactly what she was, man or not. (15.40-41)
Here's the real competition: which of the middies gets to stay aboard. We're not surprised at Deryn's selection, but Newkirk was a bit of a shocker for us.
Deryn took the bag and bowed again. "Of course, ma'am. Sorry to be so thick. It's just that… no one told me you were a lady."
Dr. Barlow laughed. "Not to worry, young man. The subject has occasionally been debated."
With that she turned away and disappeared through the gatehouse door, leaving Deryn holding the heavy valise and wondering if she was seeing things. She'd never heard of a lady boffin before—or a female diplomat, for that matter. The only women who tangled with foreign affairs were spies, she'd always reckoned.
But Dr. Barlow didn't quite have the air of a spy. She seemed a bit too loud for a job like that. (16.16-19)
To be honest, this scene kind of surprised us. It seems like Deryn of all people would understand a woman doing an unexpected job. What do you think is going through Deryn's mind?
Deryn's mouth dropped open. She'd almost forgotten—the Air Service wouldn't hang a woman, would they? Not even a common soldier. They'd boot her out, certainly, take away everything she'd ever wanted—her home on this airship, the sky itself. But they'd never execute a fifteen-year-old girl. It would be too barking embarrassing. (40.80)
Hey, even if this is maybe a bit patronizing, there have to be some perks. Do you think Deryn is right? Does her true gender protect her from being executed for treason?
One day he would have his revenge. Father had promised. The marriage contract would be changed somehow, and Alek's blood made royal.
Even if it meant defying the emperor himself. (1.49-50)
So this is great and all, but we think it's also part of why Alek struggles so much. If his father had ever been able to accept him as is, Alek might have been able to do the same for himself.
It was strange to think that in the morning, for the first time in two weeks, Alek would see other people. Not just these four men but an entire town of commoners, none of whom would realize that a prince was walking among them.
He coughed again, and looked down at his dusty disguise of farmer's clothes. Volger had been right—he was as filthy as a peasant now. No one would think he was anything special. Certainly not a boy with a vast fortune in gold. (10.57-58)
Does Alek actually think he's anything special? Deryn later gives him a hard time about how impressed he seems to be with himself. What's up with his ego?
"You're more like family than servants." Alek shrugged. "All the family I've got, in fact."
"You're still a Hapsburg. Don't forget that." (21.28-29)
If Alek's Hapsburg family refuses to accept him, do they still count as his family?
He'd always been an imposter in his own house, his father unable to leave him anything, his distant relatives wishing he'd never been born. Even his mother—she was the cause of it all. She'd cost him an empire, and somewhere deep down that fact had always stood between them.
How could the abyss that had defined his life disappear so suddenly?
The answer was, it hadn't. The emptiness was still there. (21.61-62)
Volger has just told Alek that the pope has declared him his father's heir. Considering that this is what he's wanted his whole life, why doesn't this make a bigger difference to Alek?
"We can't sit here and watch them die, Count. Enemies or not."
"Haven't you been listening?" Volger cried. "You're heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Your duty is to the empire, not those men out there." (22.26-27)
Where does Alek believe his duty lies? What does "duty to the empire" mean? What does it look like?
"Explain that we're political opponents of the emperor," Volger said. "And that he's seized the war as an opportunity to get rid of his enemies. We aren't deserters. We had no choice but to run."
As Alek translated this into English, he marveled at Volger's quick thinking. The explanation was not only believable; it bordered on the truth. (29.41-42)
Nothing like hiding behind the truth: your enemies will never believe you told it. Volger's sneakiness never lets us down.
"The boffin doesn't need my help." Dylan snorted. "She already reckons you must be quite important."
"Because of this castle? Because they came for me in a walker?"
Dylan shook his head. "Because they traded a barking count for you." (30.76-78)
Alek's identity among his men is rather interesting. In this case, Volger considers it his duty to place himself in enemy hands instead of Alek, which suggests he's less valuable—but we all know Volger is the one who's really in charge.
"I trust you, Alek," she said. "But you're just a boy. How can I be sure your word holds with your men?"
"Because I'm…," Alek started, then took a slow breath. "They'll do what I say. They traded a count for me, remember?"
"I remember," she said. "But if I'm going to bargain with you, Alek, I need to know who you really are." (34.61-63)
If we were Alek, we wouldn't be quite so certain that they would do what we said. Volger doesn't really have a history of doing so, so Alek might be getting ahead of himself here.
Alek wiped the tears from his face. "They could marry, but the children could inherit nothing. As far as my grand-uncle is concerned, I don't exist."
"So you're not an archduke or anything?"
He shook his head. "Just a prince." (35.44-46)
Oh, Alek. We feel for the guy, but this exchange just goes to show how out of touch he is with the rest of the world. It's tough to be just a prince, after all.
"Who exactly are you, madam, to take on this Lord Churchill?"
The woman rose to her full height, adjusting her bowler hat.
"I am exactly as you see me—Nora Darwin Barlow, head keeper of the London Zoo." (41.26-28)
Why do you think Dr. Barlow chose to conceal her grandfather's identity until now? We assume it's probably common knowledge, but Deryn and Alek didn't know. Was she actually hiding it, or does she just enjoy throwing out a bombshell now and then?
Deryn snorted. A few people—Monkey Luddites, they were called—were afraid of Darwinist beasties on principle. They thought that crossbreeding natural creatures was more blasphemy than science, even if fabs had been the backbone of the British Empire for the last fifty years. (4.12)
A luddite is a person who rejects new technology, and we assume monkey is a reference to human evolution. Perhaps the Darwinists are saying that those who reject fabrication are not as highly evolved as those who accept it.
But before Deryn had been born, the great coal-fired engines had been overtaken by fabricated beasties, muscles and sinews replacing boilers and gears. These days the only chimney smoke came from ovens, not huge factories, and the storm had cleared even that murk from the air.
Deryn could see fabs wherever she looked. Over Buckingham Palace a flock of strafing hawks patrolled in spirals, carrying nets that would slice the wings off any aeroplane that ventured too close. Messenger terns crisscrossed the Square Mile, undeterred by the weather. The streets were full of draft animals: hippoesques and equine breeds, an elephantine dragging a sledge full of bricks through the rain. The storm that had almost snuffed out her Huxley had barely slowed the city down. (8.5-6)
Here we get a clear picture of how integral fabricated beasties are to London life. It seems like they've at least been good for clearing the air of pollution caused by other forms of energy. Maybe we need to get some beasties into all the energy debates: definitely sounds cooler than coal versus natural gas versus something else that's not as cool as a beastie.
The Leviathan's body was made from the life threads of a whale, but a hundred other species were tangled into its design, countless creatures fitting together like the gears of a stopwatch. Flocks of fabricated birds swarmed around it—scouts, fighters, and predators to gather food. Deryn saw messenger lizards and other beasties scampering across its skin.
According to her aerology manual, the big hydrogen breathers were modeled on the tiny South American islands where Darwin had made his famous discoveries. The Leviathan wasn't one beastie, but a vast web of life in ever-shifting balance. (8.44-45)
This is Deryn's first view of her beloved Leviathan, and it gives the reader a pretty good picture, as well. We have to confess that we always think of Leviathan as the whale's name, and of the other creatures as "crew" who are also aboard. It's hard to remember that the whole thing makes up the airship.
But Deryn's favorite lectures were when the boffins explained natural philosophy. How old Darwin had figured out how to weave new species from the old, pulling out the tiny threads of life and tangling them together under a microscope. How evolution had squeezed a copy of Deryn's own life chain into every cell of her body. How umpteen different beasties made up the Leviathan—from the microscopic hydrogen-farting bacteria in its belly to the great harnessed whale. How the airship's creatures, like the rest of Nature, were always struggling among themselves in messy, snarling equilibrium. (11.19)
Just so we're clear, this is one part of the book that puts the fiction in historical fiction. Darwin did not discover DNA, though he did do quite a bit of work on the idea of ecosystems in balance—and sadly, Darwin didn't discover a way to grow new animals in eggs, either. That would have been cool though, which is why it makes a good story.
In summer the fields passing beneath the airship were full of flowers, each containing a tiny squick of nectar. The bees gathered that nectar and distilled it into honey, and then the bacteria in the airbeast's gut gobbled that up and farted hydrogen. It was a typical boffin strategy—no point in creating a new system when you could borrow one already fine-tuned by evolution. (19.24)
Yeah, there's a lot of talk about the importance of farting to the Leviathan's ecosystem. We recommend you don't try this with your biology teacher. Seriously though, there's an important point here about using what already works rather than constantly trying to invent something new.
Dr. Barlow released her chin, giving a shrug. "Well, I'm sure you're not the first boy to come into the service a bit young. Your secret is safe with me." She handed back the rigging knife. "You see, my grandfather's true realization was this: If you remove one element—the cats, the mice, the bees, the flowers—the entire web is disrupted. An archduke and his wife are murdered, and all of Europe goes to war. A missing piece can be very bad for the puzzle, whether in the natural world, or politics, or here in the belly of an airship. You seem like a fine crewman, Mr. Sharp. I'd hate to lose you." (19.53)
And here it is: a big thematic link between two parts of our story. The idea, in both politics and in nature, is that we can never just adjust one element because moving one thing will always affect others. It's the old domino effect.
"What if they don't leave?" Alek said. "What if they can't?"
"Then they won't last long," Volger said flatly. "There's nothing to eat on the glacier, no shelter, no fuel for a fire. Just ice." (22.19-20)
Ugh, this makes us think of Jack London and other folks who basically wrote about how nature will kill us all. Thanks, Volger.
"They weren't laid, but made in a laboratory. When you create a new beastie, they have to stew for a while. The life threads are in there, building the beasties out of egg muck."
Alek looked down with distaste. "It all sounds very ungodly."
Dylan laughed. "The same thing happened when your ma carried you. Every living creature's got life threads, a whole instruction set in every cell of your body." (26.48-50)
Life: wonderful and amazing… and gross, the way Deryn describes it. "Egg muck," really? You're trying to win the dude over with the idea of "egg muck"? We'll never eat an omelet again.
The head boffin stepped forward.
"The Alps were once the bedrock of an ancient sea," he said. "But now these peaks are the highest in Europe, not fit for man or beast. If you look around, you'll see no insects, plants, or small prey for our flocks."
Dr. Busk's gaze swept across the glacier. "And in this awful place, nature herself is empty." (27.31-32, 39)
Way to go, nature, being all barren and such. What Dr. Busk is saying is that the Leviathan can't heal itself—it's meant to thrive as part of an ecosystem, which is all around it, not just on board. It can't thrive if it can't access the parts of the greater ecosystem that it needs. In other words, not the best place for a crash landing.
The captain drew himself up taller. "And my first responsibility is to you, the men of my crew."
The men—not the fabricated creatures. Did he mean taking the beasties' food? But surely the captain wasn't saying…
"To save ourselves we may have to let the Leviathan die." (27.44-46)
Whoa, these are big words, especially for a Darwinist. The captain makes it clear that, however much they may use the beasties, humans still have the upper hand and consider themselves the most important part of nature. He makes no bones about it: the lives of the men (and a couple of women) are more important than the lives of the beasties.
It was always like this. To the servants he might be "the young archduke," but nobles like Volger never let Alek forget his position. Thanks to his mother's common blood, he wasn't fit to inherit royal lands and titles. His father might be heir to an empire of fifty million souls, but Alek was heir to nothing.
Volger himself was only a wildcount—no farmlands to his name, just a bit of forest—but even he could feel superior to the son of a lady-in-waiting. (1.46-47)
Here's our introduction to Alek's big issue: He doesn't really know who he is. He knows who he should be—if only his mother hadn't been so common. His father and Volger and even his mother all know who they are, but Alek's identity—at least in terms of social status—is uncertain.
Alek shut his eyes. It always pained Father when Sophie wasn't allowed to stand beside him at official receptions. More punishment for loving a woman who wasn't royal. (5.29)
Wow, those royals really know how to punish someone for marrying for love. They just do not let up.
But worst of all were the people. In the walker's small cabin he'd grown used to the smell of unwashed bodies. But here in Lienz hundreds of commoners packed the Saturday market, bumping into Alek from all directions and treading on his feet without a murmur of apology. (13.4)
Yeah, we don't like getting trampled by smelly crowds either, so we really can't blame Alek too much here. It's a new experience for him, though, to have people not know or care who he is. Does he like it or dislike it, or does it have pros and cons?
Their constant chatter about nothing made a certain sense, he supposed, as nothing important ever happened to common people. But the sheer insignificance of it all was overwhelming.
"Are they always this way?" he asked Volger. (13.6-7)
And this is where Alek starts to sound like a bit of a stuck-up spoiled brat. Does he really think nothing important happens to people who aren't nobles? What does he even mean by "important" anyway?
As he listened, Alek noticed that Master Klopp's accent had changed. Normally, he spoke in a slow, clear cadence, but now his words blurred and trilled with a common drawl. For a moment Alek thought Klopp was pretending. But then he wondered if this was the man's normal way of speaking. Maybe he put on an accent in front of nobles.
It was strange to think that in three years of training, Alek had never heard his tutor's true accent. (13.23-24)
Strange and a bit sad. It makes us wonder if anyone has ever let Alek see the true them. If everyone is always putting on a show to impress or appease the Prince, how could he ever know anyone truly?
Alek's hand went instinctively to his side, where his sword would normally have hung. The man's eyes tracked the gesture.
The room was dead silent for a moment.
As the dust and sunlight stung his eyes, Alek realized what he'd done. His accent, his bearing… the man had seen who he was. (13.31-32, 36)
Well that's unfortunate. It turns the tables on Alek, in a sense, though: maybe he'll realize that commoners aren't so dumb, after all.
As Alek glared at the newspaper man one last time, an unsettling realization overtook him. He spoke French, English, and Hungarian fluently, and always impressed his tutors in Latin and Greek. But Prince Aleksander of Hohenberg could barely manage the daily language of his own people well enough to buy a newspaper. (13.55)
Now there's a humbling thought. Is Alek fit to rule people whose language he can't even speak?
Dylan rolled his eyes. "You're quite up yourself, aren't you?"
"You think quite highly of yourself," Dylan explained slowly, as if talking to an idiot. "Like you're something special."
Alek looked at the boy, wondering what to say. It was pointless to explain that, in fact, he was something special—the heir to an empire of fifty million souls. Dylan had no way of understanding what that meant. (26.88-91)
Really, Alek? Dylan's already proven multiple times that he's no dummy. It seems to us that Alek's just proving Dylan right: he is rather up himself.
For a boy, Dylan seemed to have had the most extraordinary adventures. For a moment Alek wished he could forget his birthright and become just like him, a common soldier without land or title. (34.22)
Something like a smile appeared on his face. "Yes, I suppose it was, especially the way my mother told it. She was a lady-in-waiting for Princess Isabella of Cröy. When my father began to visit, Isabella thought he must be courting one of her daughters. But she could never figure out which one he liked. Then one day he left his watch behind on the tennis courts."
Deryn snorted. "Aye. Back home I'm always leaving my watch on the tennis courts." (35.34-35)
This is one of the moments when we love Deryn most. She just refuses to be overly impressed or intimidated by Alek's position, and it seems like she helps him to loosen up a bit, too.
The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised. Behind them, two ranks of diesel-powered walking machines stood ready to fire, cannon aimed over the heads of the cavalry. A zeppelin scouted no-man's-land at the center of the battlefield, its metal skin sparkling.
The French and British infantry crouched behind their fortifications—a letter opener, an ink jar, and a line of fountain pens—knowing they stood no chance against the might of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But a row of Darwinist monsters loomed behind them, ready to devour any who dared retreat. (1.1-2)
That's one way to open a novel. At this point, we don't yet know anything about the Darwinists and Clankers. What can we learn about them from this passage?
Surely the Germans and their Austrian chums weren't so daft as to start a war just because some aristocrat had been assassinated. The Clankers were like Newkirk's mum. They were afraid of fabricated species and worshipped their mechanical engines. Did they think their mob of walking contraptions and buzzing aeroplanes could stand against the Darwinist might of Russia, France, and Britain? (12.73)
This is obviously from Deryn's Darwinist perspective. What does it say about her understanding of Darwinist and Clanker technology?
"God's wounds," he swore. This wasn't a machine at all, but a Darwinist creation!
He'd seen monsters before, of course—talking lizards in the fashionable parlors of Prague, a draft animal displayed in a traveling circus—but nothing as gigantic as this. It was like one of his war toys come to life, a thousand times larger and more incredible. (22.6-7)
In the first quote, we saw Alek playing at war, but here he sees a real-life fabricated beast. How do his war games compare to his actual experience of encountering the Leviathan?
Alek wondered for a moment if the Germans were right after all. These godless beasts were an insult to nature itself. Perhaps a war was worth ridding the world of them.
And yet he couldn't take his eyes from the creature. Even lying wounded it looked so powerful, more like something from legend than the work of men. (22.53-54)
Given what we learn about the war and the reasons for it throughout the novel, do you think the Clankers are really interested in fighting the Darwinists simply because they disagree with their scientific practices? Or is there another reason? Is there any real reason?
He'd been such a fool—this vast creature, these people were so alien. It was madness to try to cross the gulf between his world and theirs. (25.5)
Alek thinks this after Deryn takes him prisoner. What do you think? Can he cross the gulf? What might legitimately prevent him from doing so?
"This is…disgusting. We're inside an animal!"
Suddenly the tilted walkway beneath his feet felt slippery and unstable.
Dylan laughed, turning to help Dr. Barlow up through the hatch. "Aye, but the skins of your zeppelins are made of cattle gut. That's like being inside an animal, isn't it? And so's wearing a leather jacket!"
"But this one's alive!" Alek sputtered.
"True," Dylan said, heading down the metal walkway with Tazza. "And being inside a dead animal is much more awful, if you think about it. You Clankers really are an odd bunch." (25.59-63)
This passage is a little hilarious. Also, it makes us rethink all our transportation and fashion choices.
"But I prefer machines, I'm afraid."
"Machines!" Dylan cried. "Barking useless. Give me fabricated species any day."
"Really?" Alek said. "Have your scientists bred anything that can run as fast as a train?"
"No, but have you Clankers ever made a train that can hunt for its own food, or heal itself, or reproduce?" (26.26-29)
She's got him there. This passage sets off a whole series of fusses about who's better, Darwinists or Clankers—sounds like Deryn has mastered this whole "acting like a boy" thing.
She shrugged. "We borrow as much from your engineering as you do from ours."
"Us, borrow from Darwinists?" Alek snorted. "How absurd."
"Aye, it's true," Dylan spoke up from across the room. "Mr. Rigby says you Clankers wouldn't have invented walking machines without our example to follow." (30.30-32)
Leave it to Dr. Barlow to tell the scientific truth, without a whole bunch of politics and patriotism getting in the way. She's saying what everyone else likes to ignore: Darwinists and Clankers are actually sort of interdependent. Like two parts of an ecosystem. Way to blow our minds, Dr. B.
"But isn't it a bother?" Dylan asked. "Making a machine to do something animals are better at?"
"Better?" Alek said. "I doubt one of your fabricated creatures could pull this load."
"I reckon an elephantine could drag that, easy." Dylan pointed at Klopp. "And you wouldn't have to oil its gears every few minutes."
"Master Klopp's only being careful," Alek said. "Metal can be brittle in this cold."
"That's exactly what I mean. Mammothines love the cold!" (30.44-48)
Deryn is actually really good at winning these arguments. We wonder if she prepped her speeches beforehand, or if the author secretly prefers beasties over machines.
Dr. Barlow wasn't just a Darwinist; she was a Darwin—the granddaughter of the man who'd fathomed the very threads of life.
Alek felt the floor shifting beneath him, but he doubted it was the airship turning. He was standing beside the incarnation of everything he'd been taught to fear.
And he had entrusted himself to her completely. (41.35-37)
Of course Alek entrusts himself to Dr. Barlow—in the end the Darwinists, and even the Darwin proper, turn out to be pretty cool. What might this mean for his Clanker loyalties going forward?
Her brother nodded slowly, a mischievous expression crossing his face. "Aye, maybe you're a crack hand with sextants and aerology. And maybe you can draw any airbeast in the fleet. But there's one test I haven't mentioned. It's not about book learning—more what they call 'air sense.'" (3.10)
Yeah, it's always great to hear about something we didn't know was going to be on the test. Makes us feel really confident going in. Thanks, Jaspert.
She knew more about aeronautics than Da had ever crammed into Jaspert's attic. On top of which, she had a better head for heights than her brother. (3.32)
And she's very modest about it, too. Seriously though, we give Deryn major credit for knowing her stuff and going after her dreams.
As she climbed, Deryn heard a hoarse cheer from below.
The ground men raised their arms in triumph. Jaspert was beaming, cupping both hands to his face and shouting something that sounded congratulatory, as if to say she'd done exactly what he'd told her!
"It was my barking idea, Jaspert Sharp," she muttered, sucking her rope-burned fingers. (7.46-48)
Older brothers, right? Always trying to take the credit when we do something awesome. We don't know a whole lot about their relationship, but we can tell that Jaspert is really proud of Deryn here.
"But I almost fell!"
"Of course you did!" Klopp laughed. "Everyone falls the first time they try to run."
"Everyone falls. But you did the right thing and let me take the controls in time." (10.31-34)
There's a lot to be said for knowing the limits of your skill and not overdoing it just to look like you don't need any help. As we always say, the first part of learning is knowing that you need to.
"Well, everyone also falls the second time they run, young master!" Klopp's laughter turned into coughing, then he spat and cleared his throat. "Except for you, it seems. Lucky for us you're such a Mozart with the saunters." (14.116)
If you compare this to the quote right before it in this section, you can see that Alek's skill has come a long way. Soon, he'll be composing fugues… or night-walking. Same difference.
"I shall be reviewing your signals and navigation scores," the captain was saying. "Mr. Rigby will weigh in on which of you are paying the most attention in lectures. And, of course, any missteps during this landing will be frowned upon. Good day, gentlemen." (15.36)
No matter how good we think we are at something, these sorts of speeches always make us nervous because we know we're totally going to be put on the spot. How do you think Deryn is feeling right about now?
Klopp shrugged. "Too risky. In the Balkan Wars all the walker battles were in broad daylight."
"Exactly," Alek said. "But we've crossed the length of Austria in darkness. We've mastered a skill that no one even dares to practice." (17.23-24)
It's always an advantage when you can take everyone by surprise. We give a little cheer for humanity whenever someone does something that's said to be impossible—heck, we might even tear up a little.
No stumbles now, no mistakes or they'd all be caught.
The moon had cleared the trees, the water shimmering in their path. A smile grew on Alek's face as he brought the Stormwalker into a run. Let the frigate try and catch them now.
No one could night-walk like him. (17.87-89)
We feel Alek really comes into his own as a walker pilot in this scene, which is pretty cool because it's been important to him from the beginning. He's confident, and he knows he can run and not fall at night, which is kind of a big deal.
Half a kilometer out onto the snows Alek realized that he had finally snuck past his old fencing master. (22.48)
As much as Volger annoys Alek sometimes, we know this has to be a bittersweet moment for Alek. It can be an uncomfortable feeling to know that your skill has surpassed that of the guy who's taught you everything you know.
Alek was either barking brilliant at the controls, or he was completely mad. They were headed straight for the anti-walker gun, lurching back and forth across its sights while the crew desperately reloaded. (32.36)
It's pretty cool to see Deryn realize how talented Alek is. This, unlike being a prince, is a really solid, useful skill that Deryn Sharp can respect.