by Scott Westerfeld
Deryn and Alek, the two heroes of Scott Westerfeld's new young-adult steampunk adventure, Leviathan, try very hard to be seen as normal teenage boys. This isn't easy, because Deryn, who longs to fly for the British Army, is a young woman, and Alek is the son of the recently-assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, leader of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
I haven't read a lot of Steampunk--the basic idea is to splice technology from our present (or even future) onto the Victorian or Edwardian eras, and see what that very different culture would have done. In Leviathan's timeline, Darwin not only developed the Theory of Evolution, but also discovered DNA and learned how to manipulate it. So, while Austria's Imperial-Walker-style robots are fun, the real thrills come when you follow Deryn into the British Air Service, which uses Darwinist beasties of all shapes and sizes, whole engineered ecosystems in the sky. Westerfeld's details, both biological and mechanical, make this bizarre alternate history come alive, and Deryn and Alek are smart and lively characters. Though the ending sets you up for a sequel, it's also very satisfying on its own. Highly recommended.