Fast-paced World War I fantasy exciting yet low on violence.

What parents need to know

Educational value

Some educational value despite the fact that this alternative fiction turns history on its ear. Its plots and battles, along with mentions of real historical figures such as Darwin and Churchill may inspire readers to pursue the facts on their own.

Positive messages

Prince Alek, heir to Ferdinand, has been trained for battle but his priority turns out to always be preserving life. He can't harm opposition soldiers and risks his own life for them. Deryn, the young airman, is brilliant, brave, and also compassionate.

Positive role models

The main characters, Prince Alek and the young soldier Deryn, are both positive role models despite their young age (16) and the terrors and crisis of war. They are brave, compassionate, and very intelligent and still retain the idealism of youth. They seem to be surrounded by likewise upright and caring adults, both military and civilian. The scientist Nora Darwin Barlow is based on a real person; she is similarly a strong, briliiant scientific mind.


Action-adventure set at the start of WWI includes sword fighting; reference to the murder of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, which puts their son Alek into grave danger; some soldiers are injured by gunfire; battles are planned. No gratuitious or graphic violence.


No romance. The main character Deryn must disguise her identity and pretend to be a boy to enter the airforce. Her breasts are referred to once as "diddies." Bottoms are called "bums," some slang includes the derogatory term "bum rag."

Not applicable
Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

One reference is made to the consumption of wine that accompanied a meal.

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.

Families can talk 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?

Book details

Author:Scott Westerfeld
Illustrator:Keith Thompson
Genre:Science Fiction
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Simon Pulse
Publication date:October 6, 2009
Number of pages:440
Publisher's recommended age(s):13 - 17
Read aloud:12
Read alone:12

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Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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Kid, 12 years old April 19, 2011


As usual, Scott Westerfeld has written another masterpiece. The book deals with a well-known war, studied by all, in an alternate reality of sorts. Even better, it centers on the son of a late world leader and how he deals with the loss in the midst of war. Alek's quick mind and professional attitude are to be admired. Deryn, to me, is reminiscent of Holly Short from the Artemis Fowl series. (Independent, strong-willed, and of course the dead father and first-female bit thrown in for even more admiration.) I thought she would be cliche but I was pleasantly surprised to find she had her special differences.. The steampunk feel was perfectly excecuted, and the concepts were well designed and explained brilliantly. The book is designed to make people think on how reality can be altered in realistic--if not far-fetched--ways. So long as the reader sees this, I'd deem it perfectly acceptable.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Teen, 14 years old Written bynoveleater November 17, 2010


This might not be the best written thing, but Scott keeps the pages flying by, and the drawings done by Keith Thompson are beautiful, and really tie together this package. The cover is amazing, and the plot is very exciting. What makes this very good, is the cool storyline, because WW1 is the war that people really started using cars, and they still used animals, so really it was a mix of animals and technology, and Scott does a very good job by designing is own kind of war. It almost feels real, and like you're reading a textbook without the boring feel to it. The characters are developed well, and you began to feel for the characters. You can feel the ache when Alek has his killer fencing lessons, and you can feel the wind blowing on your face aboard the Leviathan, also Leviathan is pronounced Le-vi- a- thun. The book isn't too long, beside the heavy feel to it, I think it's the glossy feel to the pages. The book isn't inappropriate, it's just a little confusing. You will have to have the time to read it, and the violence does include be stabbed at, being shot at, explosions, and all of that weird war stuff, but I wouldn't be too worried. There isn't sex, but Deryn has to be worried about her secret being discovered, as in the fact she's dressing up as a boy. She worries about people noticing her chest, and it is replaced by the word "diddies." Wow, this is amazing! I loved every second of it, except the part when I finished it. Read the book, and love it, and if you don't, that's too bad, because you'll be missing out on a real charm. Enjoy!
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much sex
Great messages
Great role models
Educator and Parent of a 4 and 9 year old Written byconnielove93 August 23, 2010

Easy to pick up, but impossible to put down!!

It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European Powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans (Clankers) use Kerosene-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British (Darwinists) employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, part of the British fleet. Aleksandar is the son of duke Franz Ferdenand who is on the run from the Darwinists who use fabricated animals as their war machines. His parents were killed and with the help of two of his father's assistants he hides from the enemy until he can take his father's place as ruler of the Clankers. The Clankers use machines for war instead of animals and they think its wrong to use animals. So naturally, the two groups are at war. Meanwhile Deryn is abord the Leviathan training to be a pilot, but instead of planes they use animals to fly. One of the best books for your child to read this summer! This is a new and original concept that is easy to pick up, but impossible to put down!!!
What other families should know
Too much violence
Great messages
Great role models


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