Vines and Threads: A Review of Leviathan

We sped past the pine trees, leaving only exhaust in our wake. The wooded area by the highway was lush and green, but I recognized a plant that should not have been there. The kudzu vine is invasive in my area; you see it everywhere. How could we contain it? I frowned, gazing at a tree completely enveloped in the plant. If only the kudzu vine had never been introduced. How would the landscape look like today? The car switched lanes, bringing me away from my object of study. Would we even know the kudzu vine was a problem? Worse, would another invasive plant just have taken its place?

Leviathan is a steampunk novel by the acclaimed author Scott Westerfeld. On the cusp of the First World War, two main political forces, the Clankers and the Darwinists, are increasingly at odds with each other. Soon, young prince Aleksandar, heir to the kingdom of Austria-Hungary, is on the run. Meanwhile, fifteen-year-old Deryn Sharp is posing as a boy in the British Air Force, on board the giant whale-ship Leviathan. When these two unlikely companions meet, how will they work together—and whose secret will be revealed first?

The Clankers and the Darwinists are two deeply fascinating groups. The Clankers are composed of most of the countries we recognize as the Central powers. They rely heavily on steam and machinery, and regard the Darwinists as blasphemous. The Darwinists consist of what we know as the Allies. They have discovered what they call “Life Threads,” or DNA, and now make hybrids to use as war machines; they, in turn, view the Clankers as barbarians. How can two youths from such opposing groups ever overcome their differences?

Leviathan is an alternate history of the First World War. However, DNA was not discovered until after the Second World War; even now, many aspects of it remain a mystery. The human genome is huge and will take decades to understand. But what if Darwin had discovered DNA, along with his theory of evolution? Would it still be a mystery, or would the entire genome be sequenced? Would we be cloning? Hybridizing? Or would DNA be taboo, a breakthrough so sacrilegious that we wouldn’t speak of it?

Leviathan is, at first blush, just another alternate history novel. But underneath the surface lie questions about how the world could have been: what if we knew about DNA earlier? How would our view of morality, religion, and ourselves change? Would we have wished we had never discovered DNA, just like I wished the kudzu vine had never been introduced?

Middle grade alternate history, ages 10-14.