I absolutely loved this book. The characters are fully formed, popping off the page, or CD in my case, and continue to evolve throughout the book. The world is full of life, history, and culture. The setting of the very beginning of WWI gives the reader a starting point, but this tale doesn’t simply sit there – no, it grabs the reader in mechanical pincers and genetically modified tentacles and drags one into an intricate plot and riotously good story. The steampunk elements easily intertwine with the alternate history that takes place. The element that I wasn’t expecting, yet worked so incredibly well, was the British Darwinists’ genetically modified beasties. Some were small (like flechette bats and straffing hawks) while some were huge (like the hydrogen breather Leviathan).
The story alternates between two points of view: Alek of Austro-Hungary and Deryn of the British Air Service. Both teens are quickly being pushed towards adulthood in this blossoming war. Deryn’s sense of humor is quick, rough, and lightens the mood of what could have been a pretty morbid alternate history. Alek, having lead a pampered semi-royal life until his most recent adventures, still manages to retain a strong sense of honor, which often leaves his protectors groaning. Count Vulgar, what side do you stand on? Scott Westerfeld has written this character so well that I can’t yet tell if the Count is simply out for his best interests, or if he is truly committed to Alek 100% and his pride is wounded when Alek no longer looks to him for every decision. Dr. Barlough with her Tasmanian Devil is another fascinating character taking no nonsense from anyone as she carries forth a diplomatic military (even scientific?) mission.
Personally, I found the beasties more fascinating than the mechanisms, but that is probably the biologist in me throwing a party over this book. Did anyone else ever play that computer game Impossible Creatures? Yeah, it’s somewhat crazy cool like that. I haven’t come across tigers with lobster claws or anything, yet, but if there was a burning need for such a beastie, I am sure Westerfeld could build it in.
Narration: Alan Cumming was fantastic. He gave this perfect, sometimes sarcastic, tone to Deryn, especially when she is cussing (Bum rag! Barking spiders!). He also did accents, and not just British. Alek and his fellow Austrians were all done in a Germanic accent (I personally can’t tell a German accent from an Austrian). Occasionally, he was called upon to make a weird mechanical or bestial noise, which he pulled off easily.