Monday, October 17, 2011

REVIEW: Behemoth by Scott Westerfield

by Scott Westerfield

Ah, the exciting world of altered history, where Darwinists (the Allied powers who manipulate DNA to create animal-based machines) and the Clankers (the Central powers who are all iron, steam and electricity) vie for the world in a surprisingly accurate, but steampunk-colored WWI.

We return to this fantastic series to find our plucky heroes on their way to Constantinople (or Istanbul, depending on who you ask). Alex, the son of the murdered archduke (see WWI, causes) and his mustached German entourage are, as Andrew from Buffy the Vampire Slayer would put it, "guestages" (not quite hostages, but not really allowed to leave either) on the British airship, Leviathan. Deryn/Dylan is still disguised as a boy to serve in the Royal Air Service. They are accompanying Dr. Barlow (a very important and bossy female scientist) to the east to deliver a Top Secret beastie to the Sultan. The Sultan, however, is mad at England for "borrowing" a state of the art war beast (the titular Behemoth), and Germany is cozying up to the Turks with shiny battleships and Tesla cannons. It is time for Alex to seize his destiny and try to end the war his family started, while Deryn must be awesome and badass and do really cool things.

This second book of the series turns it up a notch. Westerfield has established his world and characters in the first book and now he just winds up his Clanker and Darwinist toys and sends them wirring all over turn-of-the-century Europe. The world of Constantinople is richer and more complex than the airfields of Britain or the Swiss Alps in Leviathan. It is textured and cosmopolitan, melding myth and science with Turkey's more spiritual slant on machinery. The Turkish government models their machines off of animals (elephant walkers, etc). Each culture within the great city of Istanbul has its own special name for their machine walkers: the Jews have metal Golems, the Greeks have Minotaur, the native Turks name them after goddesses. The Sultan has a Oz-like machine of himself in the throne room which mimics his movements, emphasizing his divine power. The reader's imagination just sparks with the layered and laberynthine city in which the characters play.

Our old friends from Leviathan have grown up a bit. Alex, the Austro-Hungarian princeling, has taken the backbone he earned in book one and used it as a jumping off point for his rather reckless plotting, spying and adventuring in this book. 

Deryn is still as badass as ever, using her brain and her guts to save her airshipmates in spectacular ways. Again, her "oh deary me, I am a girl wearing boys clothing" situation is nicely underplayed. It still follows the cross-dressing formula: Act I: girl meets boy and there is some attraction (though in book one, this was fulfilled in one understated sentence), Act II: enter second girl to vie for boys heart, and cross-dressed girl can't say anything (accomplished in two hushed intimate scenes). I assume, in Act III. she will reveal her cross-dress-edness and they will have lots of final-scene-of-Twelfth-Night-ity. However, unlike most cross-dressed heroines, she does not moon over the boy. She kicks ass, and only entertains the possibility of hormones when nothing else really crucial (saving a fellow airman from a burning jellyfish hot air balloon or singlehandedly rescuing a elephant walker from saboteurs) is going on. 

Dr. Barlow, the bossypants scientist woman is still an old ironsides, but has sparkling moments of humor and vulnerability. And the introduction of a new friend, a rather perspicacious beastie, is absolutely delightful! I can't wait to see how he grows.

An excellent step up from book one. I am excited for the series' climactic third book!

If you liked this book, you may like:
The Artemis Fowl Series by Eoin Colfer
All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen

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