A few years ago, I read Leviathan, a novel by Scott Westerfield that puts an unusual spin on World War I. In the real world, the war started with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. It was primarily a war between Germany and its ally, Austria-Hungary, and Britain and its ally, France (and later, the United States). These facts are consistently maintained in the novel.
But the novel is different in that Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie have a young son named Aleksander, who has been sheltered from the public eye and who, when his grand-uncle, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, dies, should assume the throne. When news of his parents' assassination reaches Austria-Hungary, young prince Alek is spirited away to safety in the middle of the night--in a tank that walks!
Yes, you heard me right: the scientific developments of Westerfield's alternate historical novel are the other thing that sets it apart from fact. In Alek's world, the nations of Eastern Europe (particularly the Germans) have developed machines to wage war. These machines remind me of the AT-AT Walkers in Star Wars, which walk around on long, stilt-like legs. There are other machines as well, ships and planes and tanks that have highly advanced weapons and navigation systems.
While the Clankers (slang word for the machine-loving Germans) were busy building machines, the Brits were busy as well. They are called Darwinists, for they have taken the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin to create creatures of war. In Britain, giant whales have been evolved so that they can be filled with helium and survive out of water, creating giant living blimps. There are messenger lizards, frogs that can record (and recite) up to an hour of conversation, and smaller flying/floating beasties that look like jellyfish, among other things.
A girl named Deryn Sharp has pretended to be a boy so that she can join the British Navy and sail on the Leviathan as a crewman. There, under exciting circumstances which I will not describe so as not to give away the plot, she eventually meets Alek, and they become friends.
Behemoth is the sequel to Leviathan, and you really need to read #1 to understand the world of #2. This book is set primarily in the Ottoman Empire, which both Germany and Britain would like to make into an ally. Germany has a stronger foothold already (as the Ottomans are rather upset that Winston Churchill decided to keep the warship and its accompanying top-secret new water beast (it's called a Behemoth, by the way) the Ottomans had commissioned--and paid for), and it is into this atmosphere that the Leviathan sails on a diplomatic mission, hoping to assuage their anger. Meanwhile, the Germans have already promised the Ottomans two ships (one of which has a cannon that creates and then shoots lightning!) and military training. Of course, the adults totally boggle the transaction, and it is up to Alek and Deryn (who has begun to have romantic feelings toward Alek--who still thinks she's a boy) to save the operation.
It's a complicated world and difficult to describe in a few paragraphs, but the idea is intriguiging and the characters are well developed. The story moves along quickly; I think I finished reading this second book in a few days. And whenever the world gets too difficult to imagine, an illustration helps explain it all.
I highly recommend these novels for any reader; I think the target age group is fourth-ninth grades, but I found them entertaining and educational. Plus, I like books with pictures. There is a third book coming out in hardcover on September 20, and it's available for pre-order on Amazon. Hmm...