In Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld takes a real situation—the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who advocated for peace—and follows its repercussions through the lives of two fictional 15-year-olds: the Archduke’s son, Alek, and Deryn Sharp, who disguises herself as a 16-year-old boy named Dylan in order to enlist in the Royal Air Service. Yes, elements of the book are fantastical (the giant armored Stormwalker; the living breathing hybrid Leviathan), but the atmosphere of war and the way that war makes everyone a suspect is real.
Young people have always fought our wars, from the Revolutionary War to the Great War to the Vietnam War right through today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Young men (and likely young women) have often lied about their age in order to enlist. Like Alek and Deryn, many of them are just teenagers, idealistic and invincible, when they risk their lives.
Westerfeld sweeps us up in his tale of an orphaned teenage boy—who may or may not be acknowledged as the heir to the Hapsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian throne—thrust into a war by forces outside his control. Deryn, seeking excitement and the chance to be airborne, winds up at the epicenter of what would become the Great War. But Alek and Deryn’s predicament shares a great deal in common with the situations of real young men and women who enlist: They don’t know what they’re in for until they get there. In one of the most powerful scenes in the novel, Alek must deal with an array of feelings after he kills a young soldier in hand-to-hand combat.
Leviathan is a grand adventure story with cool machinery and fascinating creatures, conflict and a whiff of romance. But Westerfeld’s genius—as he’s proven in many of his other novels—is that he uses story as a way into thinking about the deeper issues that haunt human beings: the need to be accepted (So Yesterday), to be beautiful (the Uglies series), to be patriotic (Leviathan). While he holds teens in the grip of his stories, he asks them to question prevailing societal attitudes and to think about whether these hold value or meaning for them as individuals.