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Review: Goliath by Scott Westerfeld

by ◊ 3 years ago 3 Comments Switch View

Preliminary Scan:

Alek and Deryn are on the last leg of their round-the-world quest to end World War I, reclaim Alek’s throne as prince of Austria, and finally fall in love. The first two objectives are complicated by the fact that their ship, the Leviathan, continues to detour farther away from the heart of the war (and crown). And the love thing would be a lot easier if Alek knew Deryn was a girl. (She has to pose as a boy in order to serve in the British Air Service.) And if they weren’t technically enemies.

The tension thickens as the Leviathan steams toward New York City with a homicidal lunatic on board: secrets suddenly unravel, characters reappear, and nothing is at it seems in this thunderous conclusion to Scott Westerfeld’s brilliant trilogy.


- synopsis and cover courtesy of

Atmospheric Analysis: Goliath’s American cover continues the trend of making YA books like budget direct-to-DVD movies. Publishers: you do not need to put photos of people on your books. Really.

Apart from that little pet peeve of mine, the cover gets the job done. It’s appropriate for the book and gives any prospective readers a good idea of the kind of time period its story takes place in.

Planetary Class: I’ve seen the entire Leviathan series described as ‘alternate history’, which I don’t think is technically accurate. The last thing I want is to start a genre definition war in the comments section, but I’ve felt for a while now that certain labels are applied so broadly these days that they lose any real meaning. ‘Alternate history’, to me, would be something along the lines of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle - in other words, a novel with a ‘What if…?’ scenario at the heart of its premise. (In this case, ‘What if the Allies lost WWII and America was divided between the Axis victors?’)

The Leviathan series takes place in an alternate WWI-era Europe (and, in this book, America), but it doesn’t depict a version of the past that could ever have come about – not unless you think we could have had advanced genetic engineering and bipedal tanks in the early 1900′s. I’d call it historical fantasy with a dash of steampunk mixed in for good measure.

Mohs Rating: Goliath comes in at a 2 on the Mohs Scale. The genetically-engineered ‘beasties’ that are central to its narrative weren’t possible in the past and will almost certainly never be possible in the future, but they’re at least based on a heavily-extrapolated scientific process. The Clanker machines are fairly plausible, although they’d probably be incredibly impractical in real life. Their inclusion in a WWI story is thus based on authorial conceit rather than real-world historical or scientific fact. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course!)

Planetary Viability: As I indicated above, the fantasy/SF elements of Goliath aren’t trying particularly hard to seem realistic. The genetic engineering is rarely described in detail, which was probably a good choice on Westerfeld’s part. It works, and it leads to some pretty cool scenarios and characters, and that’s really all you need to know about it.

The fictional history, on the other hand, is…well, pretty good as far as I can tell. All right, it’s not particularly deep, but I’ve got a degree in history and I didn’t notice any immediate groan-inducing mistakes or eyebrow-raising omissions. For those with a strong interest in 20th-century European history, your ability to enjoy the book will depend largely on how well you can ignore the fact that the history of the world would likely have diverged sharply from reality with the invention of giant organic airships.

Xenolinguistical Assessment: Goliath, like the first two books, mostly sticks to two alternating POVs. There’s some slang that I suspect is probably made up, although it has an appropriately ‘WWI-ish’ feel. Most of the swear words are fictitious (again, as far as I can tell), and if you’re anything like me you’ll find them increasingly irritating with every occurrence.

Expanded Report: Goliath is the final instalment of the Leviathan trilogy, continuing the story of Deryn Sharp (still pretending to be a boy in order to continue serving aboard the Leviathan) and the exiled Prince Aleksander. Deryn is increasingly unsure of what to do about her budding friendship with Alek, while Alek is increasingly certain that it’s his job to end the war between the Darwinist  and Canker forces.

Along with the returning cast from the first two novels, we’re introduced to a few new characters who serve to flesh out the novel’s world and introduce a few new plot elements to keep things barrelling along until the novel’s conclusion. The character I had the most trouble with was a fictionalised version of Nikola Tesla, who claims to possess a device capable of destroying entire cities. (Any history buffs reading this should probably take a deep breath and step outside for some fresh air.) But more on that in a bit.

The alternating point of view gives the reader a good chance to sympathise with both Deryn (AKA Daryl) and Aleksander, which is greatly to the novel’s advantage because their interaction and developing relationship is easily the best thing about it. Even with the addition of living airships, the First World War is still (essentially) the First World War, which means that there are only so many ways the plot can go without Westerfeld completely tossing the already-tenuous alternate history angle out the window. Deryn and Alek provide a human core to the sometimes predictable and often shallow WWI backdrop. Having said that, fans of action-adventure stories similar to Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series will probably get  a lot more from the action/adventure scenes than I did, but it’s still good to have something more than just the pyrotechnics.

Unfortunately, Goliath (and the whole Leviathan series, actually) really lost me in the ‘historical’ part of the historical fantasy equation. The inclusion of Nikola Tesla as a character really encapsulates my problem: he’s become so prominent in pop culture (for a historical figure) that he almost begs to be included here, yet the Tesla who appears in the novel has almost nothing to do with the historical figure himself. Why not simply create an entirely new character? For that matter, why not just create an entirely new world? The Darwinist forces in particular just beg to be let loose into the realm of pure fantasy, where Westerfeld would be free to imbue them with the full inventiveness of his not inconsiderable imagination. So why but a brake on that by including the semi-historical setting?

Goliath falls squarely into the tricky ‘not for me’ category. If you’re now rolling your eyes at the above criticisms and wondering why I’m being so pedantic, you’ll probably get more out of this than I did. It’s a well-told story, after all, with very good pacing and a cast of likeable characters. Needless to say, fans of the first two books will find a lot to like here. Goliath is available to purchase from Amazon or your local indie bookstore.

About the Author


I came to science fiction relatively late, being a bigger fan of fantasy during my teenage years. Now I enjoy speculative fiction of all kinds, particularly anything with a literary bent. I studied English at NUI Maynooth in Ireland, and now write science fiction for teenagers. Follow my exploits at View all posts by Sean »

Discussion - 3 Comments:

  1. I’m with you, old man. A friend of mine was squeeing over the first book, way back when, and so I read it and was utterly underwhelmed. My big gripe with the first book (haven’t read the sequels) was that the characters read like twelve-year-olds to me, and the plot itself – while highly action-oriented – was ridiculously simple. Simplistic, even.

    That said, I’m reading it to my eight-year-old son, and he love love loooooves it. And he’s a history buff (for an 8 y.o.) – his favourite books are picture histories of WWI and II. So I’ll be reading this out loud to him, and suddenly he’ll pipe up, “What about the Ottoman Empire?” And I’ll be like, uh, I think they go there next book.

    Anyway: definite recommend for 8 y.o. kids who love history and machines.

    Reply Quote

    • I didn’t mention it in the review, but it sort of irks me that these books are referred to across the internet as ‘Young Adult’. (Another genre definition time bomb waiting to go off!) As you said, the characters come across as much younger than they’re supposed to be and the plot is fairly simple, both of which would put it closer to MG for me. I guess YA is the bigger seller at the moment, though.

      Oh, and I also should mention, for anyone who’s curious, that the illustrations from the first two books are back in this one.

      Reply Quote

      • I just had to come back and say that my dad read last night’s chapter to my son, and when he came out of the room afterwards he was like, “It’s science fiction… but it’s set in WWI? WTF??”

        Okay, Dad never says WTF, but that was the sentiment. He found the entire conceit extremely confusing. So that’s a big NO for easily befuddled almost-70-year-olds.



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