Study Guide

Leviathan Themes

  • Friendship

    None of our characters are really ones to sit around talking or thinking about their friendly feelings for one another, so in Leviathan, we see evidence of friendship mainly through actions.

    There are several different levels of friendship going on here, too. Leviathan is a war novel set among an (allegedly) all-male military, so we see lots of bro-tastic camaraderie going on, and the second half of the novel deals heavily with the slow development of Deryn and Alek's friendship, as they finally come to trust each other. Plus there's the mentoring Volger provides Alek and Dr. Barlow provides Deryn, which might be best described as friendship dressed up as tough love.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Before they meet each other, do Alek and Deryn have any other friends?
    2. What is the basis of the friendship that begins forming between Alek and Deryn? Why do they latch on to each other?
    3. Almost every major character keeps some kind of secret. Can there be secrets between friends? Besides Alek and Deryn, are there other major friendships in the novel? Who else could be called friends?

    Chew on This

    Wildcount Volger bickers with every person he considers a friend, but only for their own good.

    Alek and Deryn's friendship is based mostly on their loneliness as individuals.

  • Lies and Deceit

    So many lies, so much deceit, and secrets everywhere. No really—every major character in this book has at least one thing they don't want other folks to know about. Alek and Deryn are lying to most of the world about some pretty key aspects of their identities—Deryn's a girl and Alek's a prince—but in their defense, death, doom, and destruction will ensue if their hidden truths get out.

    Their older mentors, Dr. Barlow and Count Volger, have their own secrets to keep as they play the game of nations. Like what's in those eggs? What else does Volger have up his sleeve? When so many characters are defined by what they won't tell anyone, it's a pretty big deal if they choose to give a secret away, so keep an eye on whom they decide to trust and why.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Which secret do you think would be harder to keep, being a girl or being a prince? Use evidence from the novel to support your argument.
    2. Does Volger have a right to keep so much pertinent information about Alek's own fate and identity from Alek? Why or why not?
    3. At the end of the novel, Deryn knows Alek's secret, but he doesn't know hers. Is this fair? How do you think it might eventually affect their friendship?
    4. How do the keeping and sharing of secrets isolate and/or connect characters in the novel?

    Chew on This

    If you need to tell someone a secret on the Leviathan, Dr. Barlow is probably the best choice.

    Deryn's secret is a greater burden than Alek's because she hasn't been able to tell one single other person.

  • Warfare

    Leviathan is a steampunky alternate history set in the summer of 1914, during the build up to, and first days of, World War I—so we're not stretching things a bit to say that warfare is on everybody's mind in this novel.

    There are quite a few action-packed battle scenes, and we probably could have packed our quotes list with lines from those scenes, but that would have been sort of a cop-out because there's also some really important thinking about and reflecting on war and its nature in this book, and we think a little reflection is just as important as a lot of action—thematically speaking, anyway.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. How does Alek's private war with the forces that are hunting him differ from Deryn's participation in a war between nation-states?
    2. Are the causes of the war ever made clear? According to the novel, what are they?
    3. How does the assassination of Alek's parents lead to war?
    4. Does fighting on the same side make either Alek or Deryn a traitor to his or her country? How and why?

    Chew on This

    In Leviathan, warfare provides the background plot, but the book itself is far more about Alek's and Deryn's growth as individuals.

    Their experience of warfare is central to Alek's and Deryn's growth as characters; they would not be the same people without it.

  • Gender

    Most of the overt focus on gender in Leviathan stems from Deryn's disguising herself as a boy in order to fly in the British Air Service. Deryn reflects quite a bit on the unfairness of this: she's a much better airman than her male counterparts, as she proves when she's allowed to stay on the ship after Dr. Barlow's arrival, but she has to hide her gender to serve. She also thinks a lot about how she performs her masculine disguise. We see gender addressed more subtly through the character of Dr. Barlow, who is so good at what she does that no one questions her right to do it.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Out of necessity, Deryn thinks about her gender more than Alek does about his. How does gender affect his life as well?
    2. Imagine that you had to pretend to be the opposite gender. What do you think would be the greatest challenge?
    3. Does Dr. Barlow appear to be limited by her gender in any way? If yes, how? If not, why?
    4. Consider the consequences to Deryn and those who have helped her if she's discovered. In light of these, is it worth the risk?

    Chew on This

    Alek is never forced to ponder the consequences of being born male the way Deryn ponders those of being born female, but his life has been shaped by gender as much as hers.

    Deryn's initial reaction to Dr. Barlow proves that she carries as much latent gender bias as her male cohorts.

  • Identity

    While gender issues are expressed most overtly through Deryn's experience, we see other identity issues mostly from Alek's point-of-view. Dude has some serious identity crises going on: you might say he was born with them, what with that whole not really being an accepted member of the family thing. Through most of the novel, Alek is trying to figure out who he is, in relation to his family, his country, and finally, through Deryn, to other people.

    It turns out that other characters in Leviathan in addition to Alek may not be exactly what they seem or what they initially choose to reveal, either though: just look at Nora Darwin Barlow.

    Questions About Identity

    1. If Alek were to describe himself, what do you think he would say?
    2. How much does his tense relationship with the Hapsburgs affect how Alek sees himself?
    3. In what ways do various characters choose to hide their identities or reinvent themselves?
    4. How much does family affect the identities of other characters besides Alek?

    Chew on This

    His father's promises and attempts to make Alek officially royal mean that Alek has never been able to accept himself for who he is.

    Many characters choose to hide various aspects of their identities in order to control how others perceive them.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Ideas about nature, natural philosophy, and Darwinism are huge in Leviathan. After all, one of the sides in the fight calls themselves Darwinists.

    Don't get the concepts of Darwinism described in the book confused with Darwinism in the real world, though—there's a bit of overlap, but many of the discoveries on which the boffins base their work weren't made until much later (DNA, for instance) and they definitely weren't made by Darwin. Remember: This is an alternate history.

    If we focus on the ideas expressed in Leviathan, though, we're dealing with issues of trying to control nature, of interrelated ecosystems, and of the limits of human power.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Deryn loves to fly, but she also loves natural philosophy. How do these two passions work together in her character?
    2. Dr. Barlow and the other boffins are very concerned with the way ecosystems are held in balance, but they seem to have no qualms about disturbing this balance by fabricating new species. Is there ever any tension between theory and practice?
    3. The crew of the Leviathan tests the limits of human power over nature when they crash on the glacier. How does understanding these limits help or hinder the characters' appreciation for natural philosophy?
    4. Why do you think the Clankers find the Darwinists' science "ungodly"?

    Chew on This

    The idea that all elements of an ecosystem are interrelated is a metaphor for the entangling alliances that bring all of Europe into war.

    While the Darwinists talk a lot about the interrelatedness of life, in practice, they seem to regard humans as superior to other life forms.

  • Society and Class

    The Prince and the Pauper it is not, but Leviathan does feature two protagonists from vastly different societies and social classes. Most of our reflections on society and class come from good old Prince Aleksander of Hohenberg, who kind of has it on the brain: he's concerned about people feeling superior to him, even as he goes around feeling superior to everyone else. Part of Alek's journey in the novel is adjusting his assumptions about people who aren't Clanker nobles, whether they are Darwinists or commoners.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What's up with Alek's oddly bitter feelings toward his mom? He acts like if she didn't exist, he'd be the heir, when in fact, if she didn't exist, he wouldn't exist—like at all.
    2. Does Alek's royal status ever seem to bother Deryn in any way? Does it intimidate her or make her uncomfortable?
    3. In what ways does Alek exhibit a sense of entitlement? What does he see as his rights?
    4. What do you think the Darwinist leadership would do with Alek if they knew his true identity?

    Chew on This

    Alek doesn't appear to be a snob until he encounters other people, including the commoners in Lienz and Deryn.

    One of Deryn's main functions as Alek's friend is to make him laugh at aspects of himself—including his privileged upbringing.

  • Contrasting Regions: Clankers and Darwinists

    Okay, so if you look at a helpful map of Allied versus Central powers in World War I, you'll see that the Darwinist (Allied) countries and Clanker (Central) nations are all kind of mixed together, but in fiction at least, their cultures are different enough that we feel okay referring to them as contrasting regions.

    And the big contrast comes down to fabricated beasts versus steam-powered machines, and the big journey for our characters is seeing that each group borrows technology from—and can learn from—the other. In other words, both sides and their ways are valuable. It's no surprise to us, but it certainly blows people's minds in Leviathan.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions: Clankers and Darwinists

    1. Is there any fundamental philosophical difference between Clankers and Darwinists, or is it just all about which technology each group has chosen to pursue?
    2. Our two main characters are a Darwinist commoner and a Clanker prince. How do you think the book would have been different if those roles had been reversed?
    3. The Clankers seem to be at least nominally Catholic. Does religion play a role in Darwinist society?
    4. Which side do you think would really win in a fight? The characters think about this a lot.

    Chew on This

    Most of the Clanker/Darwinist hostility seems to stem from a misunderstanding of each other's technology.

    Clanker and Darwinist technology is about equal in terms of ability, so dominance of one over the other would probably depend mostly on conditions at the time.

  • Strength and Skill

    We don't really need to tell you that Deryn and Alek are both pretty skilled at handling their respective war machines, because they will quite happily tell you themselves. We guess there are worse qualities to have than a bit of cockiness about what you're truly good at. In Leviathan, this theme mostly shows up in discussion of skill, and it mostly has to do with having great "air sense" and amazing walker piloting abilities. What can we say? Our protagonists have some serious skills in this book.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. While Deryn and Alek both have a lot of natural ability, it's clear they both still have a lot to learn. Where do we see evidence of this?
    2. Who would you say are Deryn and Alek's most important teachers?
    3. What's the difference between Deryn's approach to her skill and that of someone like Fitzroy?
    4. Are Deryn and Alek good judges of their natural abilities, or do they tend to think their skills are better or worse than they actually are?

    Chew on This

    Deryn and Alek's skill with—and dedication to—learning their respective jobs give them a certain amount of equality.

    Deryn and Alek bicker a lot, but it's easy to see that each respects the other's ability.