The young adult novel Leviathan, published in 2009, is a good entry point for anyone interested in trying out the steampunk genre. It’s a great fit for the steampunk aesthetic, full of gadgets and amazing inventions that never were. The setting is in Europe, a few years past the Victorian Era in the nineteen-teens just before the outbreak of the Great War. The historical timeline is, of course, seriously skewed, differing from true history primarily in the technology. The Great Powers have chosen different paths in their development. The German and Austrian Empires have made great strides in robotics. They have created walking war machines similar to those in Star Wars. Like tanks, they require a human crew. The British and their allies have gone the other direction, creating marvels in biotechnology. The titular “Leviathan” is a living airship made from a bio-engineered whale. The creature’s body generates hydrogen, which allows it to fly.
Since this is YA, the protagonists are teenagers. One is Deryn, an English girl who poses as a boy in order to serve in the British Air Service aboard the Leviathan. The other is the Austrian prince Aleksander Ferdinand, who is fleeing from assassins in one of his country’s walking war machines. As the tension between the European powers increases, the two characters’ paths cross. Neither wants war and they struggle to prevent it, though they seem unlikely to succeed. This book is the first in a trilogy, so the story continues with the second book, Behemoth.
It’s interesting that Westerfield’s novels, which helped popularize steampunk in the 21st Century, were written for the young adult market. Perhaps that’s an indication that the publishing industry doesn’t see steampunk as “serious.” Nevertheless, it’s an exciting, fast-paced book which fans of all ages can enjoy.