A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that for a fast-paced adventure story set during WWI there is surprisingly little violence. There are some battles that culminate in deaths and injuries, but there is very little blood and no gore. Genetically engineered fighting creatures include bats that eat and then expel metal spikes over enemies. While the background is war, the main stories are that of Alek and Deryn, and their adventures as they are both on their own for the first time away from their families.
What's the story?
In 1914, the real Archduke Ferdinand is murdered. His fictional heir, Prince Alek, hides his identity and takes refuge with the Clankers, who battle with machines driven by steam. Young Deryn, a girl, disguises herself as a boy and joins the Darwinists, creators of great battle animals such as the Leviathan through genetic engineering. When the Leviathan airship crashes on a mountaintop, Alek is captured by the Darwinists and ultimately finds himself looking for ways to save his former enemies, helping them repair the Leviathan by utilizing Clanker technology. His fear that their creatures are evil decreases as he discovers the symbiotic world that is Leviathan: bats, birds, glowworms, sniffers ... and enemy soldiers who are just as idealistic and virtuous as he is. The war is soon full on, and a great cliffhanger ending leaves readers wondering which way it will go.
Is it any good?
A brilliant imagination and a sense of humor have blended in this excellent example of steampunk. This alternative history throws in historical figures such as Winston Churchill and Nora Darwin Barlow, quotes the poet Goethe, and sets the coming-of-age stories of Prince Alek and Deryn, young airman of the Darwin army, on a parallel course of nonstop adventure. The political intrigue and momentum of war brewing only add to the compelling plot and very likable characters.
There is much humor, fantasy, and innovation in this historical setting. Westerfield has included a long afterword that defines what is fictional and what is fact. Gender roles are even tossed: Deryn is the swashbuckling, risk-taking one, while Alek is the sensitive, war-adverse prince. The author is bound to win over plenty of fans who will doubtless be clamoring for the sequel.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what is real in this account and what is fiction. What were the real causes of the first World War? Were there misperceptions and political motives beyond a real need for war?
Is there bioengineering going on today? What kinds of creatures, if any, are being attempted? What are the ethics of such genetic engineering?
Deryn had to disguise her gender in order to serve in the military in 1914. Why did she want to serve? How else was life different for women 100 years ago?
The great Leviathan is a miracle of engineered animals working together in a very symbiotic relationship. Alek and his protectors form a similarly symbiotic relationship with Deryn and the crew of the Leviathan. Can you think of other instances, in fiction or history, where such relationships have formed?
For kids who love fantasy and adventure
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