Review of Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, read by Alan Cumming

Leviathan

by Scott Westerfeld

read by Alan Cumming

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2009. 7 CDs. 8.5 hours.
Starred Review.

I blame this book for making me late to a meeting last week. I set off in my car, popped the next CD in the player, and got enthralled in the story. I was halfway to my usual workplace when I realized I should have driven to the government center!

I was reluctant to read this book. Even though I liked the series that began with Uglies, and respected the level of the writing and world-building, I’d gotten rather tired of them. It only took a few minutes of listening to Leviathan to realize that this book had an altogether different flavor and that I wouldn’t get tired of it any time soon.

Leviathan is in the relatively new steampunk genre, which, as the author explains in a note at the end, combines a vision of the future with an alternate version of the past.

The book tackles the beginning of World War I from the perspectives of a boy in Austria and a girl in Britain. But events unfold very differently than they did in our world.

The boy is Aleksandar, the fictional son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose death sparked the Great War. The book opens with a loyal count and a small company escaping with Alek after his parents’ death, because now he is heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and the people who killed his father want him dead.

They make their escape in a giant Stormwalker, a powerful war machine created by the German-speaking powers in this alternate world where they had an advanced understanding of technology. Alek had been wanting to learn to pilot one, but he never imagined learning to steer one at night, and in secrecy.

Meanwhile, in England, commoner Deryn Sharp from Glasgow is pretending to be a boy so she can enlist in the Air Corps. However, in her world Darwin changed everything, by not only discovering evolution, but also unlocking the secrets of DNA. Deryn lives in a world of fabricated beasts, living machines that can do anything you can imagine, but that also manufacture their own fuel (using digestion) and heal themselves.

On Deryn’s first day in the service, on her solo flight, she gets caught in a storm and manages to save her own neck, but gets picked up by the great airbeast Leviathan. The Leviathan has a crew of hundreds and is a cross between a whale and many other species, with innards that breathe hydrogen to keep it afloat.

The Leviathan is headed for a secret mission in Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire. But war breaks out around them, and Deryn’s path crosses with Alek. Can Darwinists work with Clankers to save both sets of lives?

This audiobook is full of exciting escapes and adventures from start to finish. As you would expect in a book involving a world at war, there are many different accents involved, and Alan Cumming does a superb job differentiating the characters by their accents and voices. I found myself starting to exclaim “Barking Spiders!” like Deryn after listening to this book for awhile.

And Scott Westerfeld has a complicated and strange world to present, but he pulls it off beautifully, never letting the action lull as he lets the characters describe their new experiences, such as Deryn flying over a London swarming with fabricated beasts and Alek learning to make a Stormwalker run. Alan Cumming manages to keep the excitement in his voice for the entire audiobook, as there are almost always exciting things going on. I hope he took lots of breaks while recording!

The one thing I didn’t like about this book is that it is definitely not a stand-alone story. It ends when they’ve gotten out of one narrow escape and have revealed some of the secrets, but the story and the war are definitely just beginning. And who knows how long it will be before the next installment comes out? Not fair!

One thing’s for sure, when the next book is published, I will want to read it just as soon as it comes out. This one was excellent on audio, but if the audio version doesn’t come out the same time as the print version, I may not be able to wait.

Leviathan made fantastic commuting-time listening, except for being too interesting to listen to when I wanted to go somewhere other than my normal workplace. It also was one of those books that made me want to sit in the car in my parking place until I got to a good stopping place — but a good stopping place never came.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of A Conspiracy of Kings, by Megan Whalen Turner

A Conspiracy of Kings

by Megan Whalen Turner

Greenwillow Books, 2010. 316 pages.
Starred Review.

I’ve been waiting eagerly for this book, the fourth about The Thief Eugenides. When it did arrive last week, sure enough, I didn’t stop reading until I finished, even though that severely cut into my time to sleep. I will probably reread it soon to savor it more slowly and catch the things I missed that I’m sure Megan Whalen Turner inserted all along. She has a way of writing books that get richer every time you read them.

Again, I can’t say too much about the plot, because I don’t want to give away all that happens in the earlier books. This definitely is a book you would enjoy more if you read the earlier books first. Or at least you’ll definitely enjoy the earlier books more, because this book refers back to almost every surprising plot point in The Thief and The Queen of Attolia.

I was fully expecting to be championing this book for this year’s Newbery Medal, but now that I’ve read it, I think it’s probably not enough of a stand-alone story to win. However, rabid fans of the earlier books (like me) will gobble it up and be excited that she’s definitely setting the stage for further exciting drama and conflict with the Medes. I strongly suspect that Eugenides will be up to some further scheming in future books, and I only wish that Megan Whalen Turner could write such brilliant books just a little bit faster!

I like that this book featured our old friend Sophos from the first book, The Thief. In A Conspiracy of Kings, Sophos must grow into his heritage. He’s the heir to the throne of Sounis, but the book starts with his kidnapping. There are powerful people who would like to make him a puppet king with the Medes pulling the strings. Can Sophos find a way to escape that fate? Can someone who preferred poetry to swordplay and who blushes easily and can’t lie convincingly seize and hold a kingdom?

In the first chapter, Sophos writes:

“I was crossing the courtyard of the villa, and it was as if one of Terve’s lessons had come to life. He may as well have been there, shouting, ‘You are suddenly attacked by fifteen men; what are you going to do?’ Only they weren’t a product of Terve’s imagination; they were real men, cutting down the guards at the front gate and streaming into the courtyard of the villa.”

If you haven’t yet read these books, full of adventure, danger, plots and counterplots, and wonderfully flawed heroes and heroines — order a copy of The Thief right away and get started!

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Review of Victory of Eagles, by Naomi Novik

Victory of Eagles

by Naomi Novik

Read by Simon Vance

Books on Tape, 2008. 10 hours, 30 minutes. 9 compact discs.

This is the fifth book about the dragon Temeraire, his captain Will Laurence, and how the Napoleonic Wars would have gone if dragons were in the fight on all sides.

Because of what they did at the end of the last book, Temeraire and Laurence are in disgrace. But the powers that be can’t punish Captain Laurence as they would like to, because they need him to keep Temeraire under control. But can anyone really control Temeraire and stop his insidious ideas about rights for dragons from spreading among the other dragons?

This book is not as upbeat and positive as the other books, because it starts out with defeat. Napoleon successfully invades England. But can he keep it? This is where Temeraire may make the difference.

I was sad when this book ended, since Naomi Novik hasn’t written the next book in the series yet. Simon Vance does a great job with the accents of dragons and men, and I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to him tell this saga as I travel back and forth to work.

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Review of Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik

empire_of_ivoryEmpire of Ivory

by Naomi Novik

Read by Simon Vance

Random House Audio, 2007. 11 hours, 7 minutes on 10 compact discs.
Starred Review

Ah, the fourth book about Temeraire, the celestial dragon who fights with his captain William Lawrence in England’s Aerial Corps against Napoleon’s forces!

You definitely need to read these books in order. By this time, I am wholly caught up in the saga. Although Book Three, Black Powder War did not end with a cliffhanger, Empire of Ivory begins in the thick of things as if it did. It turns out that the expedition that ended the previous book was not as simple a solution as we thought it would be, and this book begins in the middle of a struggle to carry it out.

When Will Lawrence does get safely to England, he learns that the dragons of England are sick. However, it turns out that Temeraire may be able to find a cure in Africa. Along the way, we see the repercussions of the slave trade in a world where the natives of the African interior have dragons of their own. There’s all kinds of danger and ingenuity and narrow escapes.

I’ve been listening to these books on my commute to work, thankful that I moved further away! Empire of Ivory does end on a cliffhanger, so I checked out the next book the very same day I finished it, and am now eagerly looking forward to my next day’s commute. I have also gotten hooked on Simon Vance’s reading style, complete with accents, which is just as well. I’m sure I’d stay up all night reading the next book if I was enjoying the print version. Listening slows me down in a thoroughly enjoyable way.

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Review of Mothstorm, by Philip Reeve

mothstormMothstorm

The Horror from Beyond Uranus Georgium Sidus!

by Philip Reeve

narrated by Greg Steinbruner

Recorded Books, 2009. Unabridged. 7 CDs, 8.25 hours.

Here’s a third rollicking tale of the adventures of the Mumby family, subjects of Queen Victoria in an alternate reality where Britannia rules outer space.

As with the others, this book is full of narrow escapes and deadly peril. Now Art and Myrtle go beyond Uranus (which they know as Georgium Sidus) and encounter a powerful Shaper. This Shaper has created a world of giant space moths, intent on making a new home in our solar system. Jack Havock and his crew are back, and we even find out the surprising story of Cilissa’s origins.

I’m still hooked on Greg Steinbruner’s narration, clearly delineating the voices of the different characters coming from such a wide variety of species.

These books will be much more fun when read in order. They’re full of humor, adventure, wild imagination, and wondrous doses of British pluck. This series would be fantastic listening for an entire family, and definitely provided diverting listening for my daily commute. Huzzah for another adventure!

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Review of Black Powder War, by Naomi Novik, read by Simon Vance

black_powder_warBlack Powder War

by Naomi Novik

read by Simon Vance

Books on Tape, 2007. Unabridged. 10 hours, 24 minutes. 9 CDs.
Starred Review

This is now the third book about Temeraire, the Celestial dragon serving in Britain’s Aerial Corps in this alternate history tale of the Napoleonic Wars.

Temeraire and his captain, Will Laurence, are ready at last to go back to England after a successful mission to China in the second book. Before they set out, they receive orders to go by way of Istanbul to pick up three dragon eggs for England.

To get there as quickly as possible, they must go by the overland route. Their voyage is difficult and dangerous and fraught with setbacks. Before they can get home, they wind up in the middle of Napoleon’s campaign to take over Europe and they in particular have gained a powerful enemy.

You definitely should read the earlier two books before you read this one, and I predict that you will be hooked, as I am. Temeraire is traveling the whole world in this series, since he took a different route back from China than the one he traveled to China in Throne of Jade. So now we see him outside the naval setting, navigating all kinds of challenges, and now zealous for a new cause: the promotion of dragons’ rights, from seeing how well they were treated in China.

I’m also hooked on Simon Vance’s vocal interpretation of the story, with Will Laurence’s proper British voice and Temeraire’s curious tone. I especially enjoyed the voice he gave the new hatchling in this book. I’m not even tempted to read the next book in print form — It is making my commute too much fun by listening. I’m also glad that I caught the series late — now I don’t have to wait before I can go on to Books 4 and 5.

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Review of Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik

throne_of_jadeThrone of Jade

by Naomi Novik

Read by Simon Vance

Books on Tape, 2007. 10 CDs, 11 hours, 44 minutes.
Starred Review

Throne of Jade is the second book about Temeraire, the dragon who fought with England against Napoleon’s forces in this delightful alternate history. In the earlier book, His Majesty’s Dragon, navy Captain Will Laurence captured a dragon’s egg from a French ship, and became that dragon’s companion in the Aerial Corps.

After the events of the first book, the world learns that Temeraire’s egg was meant for Napoleon, for he is of a lineage that the Chinese only allow in the company of emperors or an emperor’s family. At the outset of Throne of Jade, a Chinese envoy has come, indignant that Temeraire is treated as the pet of a common sea captain, intending to persuade England to send Temeraire back to China.

Negotiations are difficult, and England desperately wants trade to China kept free. Temeraire will not leave Laurence, and Laurence is willing to face hanging rather than trick him into leaving. So Temeraire and Laurence face a long sea voyage to China, encountering dangers and intrigue along the way. When they arrive in China, they see a country where dragons live almost as equals with humans, studying and learning as much as fighting. Will Temeraire be won over and decide to stay?

These books are intriguing as they reveal “facts” about the lives of dragons, which seem so realistic, you quickly forget that they didn’t actually have dragons in those days. The characters are compelling, and you find yourself indignant with Laurence at the slight to his honour of even suggesting that he would lie to Temeraire. As before, the book reminded me of a Patrick O’Brien book, only with dragons — which I somehow find much more exciting.

My plan was to listen to a different audiobook before I go on to the next book in Naomi Novik’s series. (There are five.) However, I find I can’t stand the wait! When I learned that our library had a copy of the next audiobook, Black Powder War on the shelves, I immediately checked it out and will start listening the next time I enter my car. I first chose to listen to this book because I couldn’t quite get around to reading it, but now I can’t bring myself to “read” it any other way. I have grown fond of the characters as portrayed by the voice of Simon Vance, and don’t want to miss out on that variety by reading it to myself and hearing only the voices my own mind can conjure up.

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