Goliath by Scott Westerfeld (2011) 543 p.

Goliath is the conclusion to Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, an alternate-history WWI steampunk YA adventure series in which Franz Ferdinand’s fictional heir Alek attempts to stop the ongoing war while travelling around the world on the living British airship Leviathan, assisted by able young cadet Dylan Sharp – actually Deryn Sharp, a boy in disguise. Goliath greatly expands the scope of the story, with the Leviathan travelling across Siberia and Japan, crossing the Pacific and eventually reaching North America. It’s probably objectively the best book of the series.

Unfortunately I found the trilogy as a whole underwhelming. It’s competently written, and Westerfeld clearly has a marvellous imagination, but much of it too often feels like a publisher’s ideal YA series rather than something more original or daring. We check off all of the following cliches: noble child on the run learning to live amongst common people, girl who dresses up like a boy to serve in the military, fetishisation of British naval service, scheming journalists and foolish millionaires, an inevitable romance between the two leads, and cute animal sidekicks which eventually prove irrelevant to the plot. And the alternate history setting, which was put to good effect in Leviathan and Behemoth, becomes tiresome in Goliath, as Westerfeld takes us on a roll call of all the era’s famous figures. Nikola Tesla is integral to the plot and is put to good use, but by the time the Leviathan went on a Mexican detour purely, it seemed, for the purposes of meeting Pancho Villa, I was starting to get annoyed.

I suppose what I didn’t like about the Leviathan trilogy was that it never really surprised me. Can’t we have YA fiction where the main leads don’t fall in love just because they’re of the opposite sex? Can’t we have strong roles for female characters that don’t involve putting on trousers and doing boy stuff? Can’t we have characters’ fears about punishment or consequences actually realised, instead of everything turning out OK at the end of each book? We can, of course, and there’s plenty of YA fiction out there that does that (I feel like a broken record going on about Philip Reeve, but I’m also thinking of John Christopher – who, to be fair, had the benefit of writing YA fiction before the term itself was invented by publishers as a marketing angle). And I don’t want to suggest that genre subversion is a mandatory prerequisite for successful YA fiction. I’m just trying to put my finger on why, despite many points in its favour, I found the Leviathan trilogy ultimately unsatisfying.

Anyway, that’s just my take. Although I think it’s true that nobody’s ever too old to read YA fiction it’s also important to remember that I’m no longer the genre’s target audience. If you’re looking for fun young adult fiction, or are stocking a school library or your kid’s Christmas stocking, by all means give this series a try. I thought it was okay, and a lot of people loved it more than me.

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