Jumpdrives & Cantrips


Leviathan Rising

Leviathan RisingJonathan Green‘s Leviathan Rising is an intriguing introduction to the UK’s Abaddon Books. It’s the third book in the Pax Britannia series featuring Ulysses Quicksilver, the “dandy adventurer and hero of Magna Britannia.” As a Victorian-style steampunk world, complete with remnant populations of dinosaurs, a Queen Victoria who celebrated her 160th jubilee, and a Bond-esque protagonist… well, really, what’s there to lose?

Ulysses sets off on the maiden voyage of the Neptune, a massive submersible cruise-liner, though his so-called vacation quickly becomes a whodunit murder mystery involving the ship’s high society contingent. In the midst of trying to figure out the initial murder, the massive be-tentacled leviathan attacks and the remaining passengers must figure out how to escape a damaged sub sitting on the brink of the Marianas Trench, avoid being murdered by the original killer who is still somewhere in the group, and not get consumed by the rampaging leviathan in the process.

Obviously a book made with heavy intent towards pulp-like entertainment value, Leviathan Rising takes a while to get the adventure gears turning in the right direction. Jonathan Green has a habit of telling rather than showing in the beginning of the book, which slows the pace. For instance, a dinner party where Ulysses mentally provides a short history on each guest, serving as an info-dump: instead the scene could have yielded great characterization through dinner conversations.

Another problem for me was difficulty “connecting” with Ulysses Quicksilver as a protagonist. As a reader we aren’t given much in the way of back-story, and Ulysses isn’t a terribly sympathetic character. If not for his actions about midway through the book that begin to redeem his earlier snobbery and arrogance, he wouldn’t ever become sympathetic. I suspect having knowledge of his past adventures would make him more multi-dimensional, but I’m not certain since this is the first in the series I’ve read.

Leviathan Rising had a lot of potential to also serve as a back-handed comedy of manners by skewering ideas of class, race, and gender relationships. Instead the novel reinforced the structural differentials present in Victorian British society. I was taken aback at the use of Chinese characters as stereotypical, inscrutable double-crossing agents and frequently described as yellow-skinned or slanty-eyed. While possibly historically relevant in Victorian times, such blatant racial profiling is unacceptable today without further deconstruction (in contrast, Emma Bull’s Territory deals exceptionally well with historical roles of minorities).

Despite its faults, there are some areas where Leviathan Rising excels. Green has a great campy sense about his writing and word choice that is unfortunately inconsistent, but when present, it shines. The adventure parts of the book are well put-together, and keep the pages turning, especially once the writing hits a good rhythm in the second half of the novel. And I think best of all was the setting, in a high-society steampunked Victorian world that nonetheless has genetic engineering, high-tech travel, transmitting Babbage machines, and dinosaur safaris.

Jonathan Green created a fascinating world and a true adventure in Leviathan Rising, despite its inconsistencies. I’d be interested enough to take other books in the series with me for beach reading, but be sure to not expect any surprises or grand literary revelation. This book is clearly made for comforting predictability and mindless enjoyment, despite having minor cautionary themes about humanity playing God. If you’re a fan of pulps, and of tentacles, and of all-out adventure with everything that comes with it, then by all means: take the plunge.

Green, Jonathan. Pax Britannia: Leviathan Rising. Oxford: Abaddon Books, 2008. 328 pages. $7.99 (US), paperback.

See also: review at Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review.

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