Scott Westerfeld's new steampunk/alternate history trilogy that begins with Leviathan is absolutely brilliant. I started turning pages and became entranced at once in this entertaining and captivating world. I cringe when I think about how long it's going to be till the next book (at this point, I don't know).
As a history major, I'm familiar with the plots and portents of World War I (initially called the Great War) and how all the nations of the world at that time were involved in power plays and land grabs. Westerfeld plays fast and loose with history, though, so you don't have to worry about having a firm grasp of the actual events. He's changed a lot of things and simply made the background his own.
He furthermore splits the world into the Clankers and the Darwinists. The Clankers have a tendency to produce mechanical things, tanks with legs instead of treads. The Darwinists have cracked "the threads of life" (DNA) and have learned how to combine different species to create enhanced life forms or whole new ones.
Leviathan is one of those Darwinist concoctions. Essentially it's a flying whale, an organic zeppelin (though there are ordinary zeppelins in the novel as well). However, the whale is accompanied by a whole host of other creatures that form a vast eco-system that floats high above the earth.
There are insect-dogs with the ability to sniff out hydrogen leaks, bees that gorge themselves on nectar to make honey the whale can eat, falcons that fly around dropping nets on opposing aircraft, and bats that eat nails and defecate them out later to rain havoc on airborne enemies as well as ones that trail along the ground.
The main characters are a boy of nearly sixteen who is an escaped Austrian prince evading German killers, and a sixteen year old girl, Deryn, who's masquerading as a boy to be part of London's air service. Prince Alex and Deryn/Dylan are a perfect complement for each other. Alex has all the courtly training, and Deryn is a perfectly obnoxious young boy from the streets of the city. It's really fun how most people would expect the opposite, yet they play off each other so well. Alex tends to be quiet and shy, and Deryn is explosive and perky.
The interior art by Keith Thompson is going to have young artists going steampunk in no time. His iron contraptions look fantastic, and the hybrid creatures seem ready to jump off the pages. This is going to be one of those well-thumbed through books as readers go back again and again to look at the art.
The action in the book remains frantic from the opening page to the last. Our heroes jump from frying pan to the fire over and over again, each time barely escaping by the skin of their teeth. Westerfeld makes certain the scientific and world surprises keep coming too. I can't wait to see what happens next, but I wish it wasn't going to take so long.