Oh, you didn't know that World War I Europe looked like this? Really? Well, it does--in Scott Westerfeld's new novel, Leviathan. In his world, it all comes down to different divisions of science. Austria and Germany have spent the last 100 years or so perfecting mechaniks, the science of engines and machines. Their war machines can walk on two or four or six or even eight legs. They fire bombs and bullets and sometimes sticky phosphorus. They're called the Clankers.
The Darwinists, on the other hand, have taken Darwin's observations about species and run with them. He proposed that every living thing is comprised of life threads (like DNA) that, when unraveled, can be combined with the life threads of other living things. Genetic engineering, of course. So, the Darwinists have war machines like the one below, an ecosystem (really) that incorporates a giant airborne whale, some cilia to direct airflow, bats that poop metal darts, talking messenger lizards, and hawks that fly in formation with razor-wire nets to cut enemy planes to pieces. Simple science, if you think about it.
So, in this slightly altered world, there is still an assassination that sparks it all: the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are murdered by Serbians (or maybe that's just a conspiracy; maybe the Germans killed them because they wanted to get the war started). Their son, Aleksandar, is whisked away to safety in a Cyclops Stormwalker by a few loyal friends. (Franz and Sophie didn't have a son named Alek, of course, and none of their children had to be whisked to safety. But this makes it all much more interesting.)
Meanwhile, a young girl named Deryn poses as a boy to join the British Air Service, and she's a natural--in the air, that is. It's a bit harder for her to nail the boy routine.
You've probably already figured out that Alek and Deryn are going to meet up somehow, and that's only because you're a barking genius. But I'm not going to tell you anything else. Like, I'm not going to tell you about the illustrations in each chapter and how glorious they are. I'm also not going to tell you about Alek's transformation from priveleged lordling to slightly-more-responsible almost-man. Or about Deryn's many, many adventures in the air. And certainly not about who Dr. Nora Barlow is related to. It's just too much to give away.
I'll just say that if you've been thinking about reading some steampunk, this is the book to break in with. It's fun, and funny, and a blast of an adventure. The only downfall is this: it's the first book and a series, and it just came out in October, so who knows how long we'll have to wait for more. But, you could always read it again when #2 comes out.