Barking Spiders! It’s Scott Westerfeld’s ‘Leviathan,’ plus bonus Wordstock commentary!

My colleague Suzi Steffen and I have long disagreed about which Scott Westerfeld series is better. Suzi votes for his Midnighters books, about a group of teens in Bixby, Okla., who are awake for midnight’s magic hour, when clocks freeze but those born at midnight can move freely (if warily; strange things lurk in the midnight hour). I’m for the series that starts with Uglies and is set in a distant (and distantly post-apocalyptic) future in which everyone has an operation, at the age of 16, that turns them gorgeous — and idiotic.

The question might be moot, now. Westerfeld’s latest, Leviathan, is the first of a series — and you’d do well to know that going in, as nothing on the cover suggests that it’s not a standalone. Leviathan takes place in a world where things went a little differently around Darwin’s time. In England, he discovered DNA and figured out how to play with the threads of life, crossbreeding creatures and developing a biology-based military. England is Darwinist, but on the continent, the Clankers have control; in Austria-Hungariy and Germany, people travel in many-legged machines and rely on engines and guns for their defenses. And, of course, their offenses, which quickly come into play when a certain duke is murdered.

Leviathan is a ripping yarn, a classic-feeling adventure story that never forgets that its characters are trucking about their days precariously close to death. In Austria, Alek, the (fictional) young son of Archduke Ferdinand, is on the run from his own countrymen after the murder of his parents; he’s tearing across the continent in a walker, putting his own hours of training (at walker-driving, swordplay and the like) into immediate and dangerous practice. In England, a young Scot by the name of Deryn Sharp is also in hiding, but right out in the open: She’s joined the military (disguised as a boy, of course; this is alternate history, but some things are just the same) and found a place on the Leviathan, a great beastie of an airship that’s part zeppelin and part whale. Bees, bats, hawks, glowworms, hydrogen sniffers and humans are just some of the creatures that are part of the Leviathan‘s floating ecosystem.

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Deryn is a natural in the air, but for a good reason: her father was a balloonman, and her skills are the result of years of practice (a delight after too many fantasy books in which Our Heroines are just blessed with perfection and the ability to magically and instantly do everything required of them). She’s on the adventure she’s always wished for, while on the ground, Alek is in a terrible place, hunted, grieving, a pawn in a greater battle. Westerfeld switches between their viewpoints with ease, trading out Alek’s dangerous flight from Austria, with its bullets and fear and learning on the run, for Deryn’s life on the Leviathan, where she learns “Service-speak” and spikes dialogue with her own colorful slang.

Much of the book is scene-setting for the war that’s clearly to come, but that’s not to say it’s not fascinating. Leviathan is a story of conflict and contrast — not just the obvious war that’s creeping quickly over the horizon, but between science and technology; between a scientist and a count; between the potential heir to an empire and a girl from no particular background. Westerfeld is careful to keep both the Clankers and the Darwinists sympathetic (though it does seem like the Darwinists have more fun), and the depths to which he envisions his beasties and machines is impressive. It would be easy to get lost during Deryn’s treks through the giant Levitathan, but Westerfeld’s jaunty prose — with a gorgeous assist from Keith Thompson’s illustrations — keeps even a giant sky-beast in context and scope.

Westerfeld was one of the speakers at last month’s Wordstock festival in Portland, and I, late as ever, tore into the convention center in time to see about half of his talk, which mostly involved showing illustrations from Leviathan and discussing what they depicted and how these things related to the story — all while carefully avoiding spoilers and making delicious pronouncements like, “If you’re in a young adult novel, your parents already screwed up.” It was one of a generous handful of highlights of Wordstock, which I found alternately fantastic and frustrating. Its location, in the soulless convention center, was muffling; I tried to keep myself busy with panels and readings so I wouldn’t wind up wandering around the booths too often. They’re all stacked with gorgeous books, sure, but convention center trappings are the same wherever you go, and it gets a touch depressing.

The panels, however, were anything but. Besides Westerfeld, there were a few notable moments:

• Blake Nelson — whose Girl all Portlanders who were alive in the ’80s ought to have read by now — read from his latest, Destroy All Cars. It’s the story of a deeply, amusingly idealistic teenager who rails against automobiles, do-gooders who do nothing but talk and, among other things, big box stores. Nelson was reading on the Target Children’s Stage. The audience tittered appreciatively. While discussing the wide world of young adult publishing, Nelson, seeming sweetly uncomfortable, said, “They kind of overpay you if you write for boys.” Aspiring YA novelists, take note.

• Monica Drake and Gina Ochsner. Whoever put these two wonderful Oregon writers on one panel, well, I thank you. I loved Drake’s 2007 novel Clown Girl but hadn’t read anything by Ochsner. Drake’s reading was a disconcerting and alluring tease, a snippet of story about a new mother, a bottle of pills, the phrase “alone but not alone” repeating like a tolling bell; Ochsner’s was a short story that bowled me over with its gorgeous simplicity, its details, its lovely way of speaking about love and perfection and impossibility. I can’t find the damn story anywhere, though. I need it.

• Ethan Canin. “I’ve never given a reading at which so many people were holding Sherman Alexie books,” began Canin, who spoke not long after Alexie’s (sold-out) appearance. “There must be a reason for that.” I hear from a reliable source that Canin’s self-deprecating, laidback self-presentation — Oh, I hate reading aloud, shall we just talk about stuff, all of you and I? — is the norm for his appearances, but it was my first experience with him, and he was downright charming, telling stories and dispensing nuggets of wisdom about the writing life in equal measure. And when he did, eventually, read from America America, I decided it was about time I pick up one of his books.

• I missed James Ellroy, who was booked opposite Nelson, but reportedly he told an audience member to stuff his question up his ass. I shall never skip a James Ellroy appearance again. Well, unless he’s up against another young adult novelist I adore.

• Patrick deWitt and Maria Semple. I went to this panel out of curiosity about Semple, a former TV writer who worked on Arrested Development, and while the excerpt she read (from This One Is Mine) was bitingly funny, I came out of the reading fixated on deWitt’s debut novel, Ablutions: Notes for a Novel, about a bartender in an L.A. bar that’s seen better days. His second-person prose and knowing tone was more than promising.

• There was a panel called “Willamette Week at 35.” I assumed this would, well, be a panel about the Portland alt-weekly through the years, but instead, it was a panel of former WW writers who’ve published books. I stayed for Katherine Dunn (Geek Love) and Oregonian food critic Karen Brooks, who were both fantastic, down-to-earth, no-bullshit speakers (and writers). I was less impressed with Wordstock founder Larry Colton, who claimed that a) there were no young adults at Wordstock and b) young adults aren’t reading. He pointed to (among other things) the emptiness of Wordstock’s “young adult” area as proof.

The thing is — setting aside, for now, the question of young adults and reading (I don’t have the statistics for it, but I don’t think Colton did, either *) — it wasn’t a young adult area. Sure, there were young adult authors reading on the aforementioned Target stage — but it was part of what is clearly described in the Wordstock program as the “Target Children’s Stage & Activity Area,” with giant crayons and arts and crafts. That’s great! Have a kids’ area! But a kids’ area and a young adult space are entirely different things. Nothing about that space was exceptionally teen-friendly, and beyond that, I’m not sure Wordstock is the most teen-friendly thing in the world (that said, there were definitely teens at the Blake Nelson talk, and the Laini Taylor/Sarah Rees Brennan talk, too). I’m not sure how you make it more so, but again, the convention center is a problem, and so, I think, is the passive nature of most of the events. You go and sit and get talked at. It’s great if you’re already a super book nerd, but how do you get more casual readers to go? Especially teen readers?

I don’t know, but I think this is a question, not a blanket statement like Colton made. What I do know, though, is that just an hour or two earlier that day, I heard a teenager tell her mother, “I wish we’d discovered this earlier.” Her mom asked, Earlier like yesterday? No, the girl said, “like when I was 11 or 12.”

I knew how she felt.

* For some interesting statistics on what teens do read, you could take a look at this recent Publishers Weekly piece.