The easiest way to explain this book is the official summary:
It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet.
Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men.
Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.
With the Great War brewing, Alek’s and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever.
In case you missed it, this book is steampunk. And what World War 1 would have been like had the Continent run on steam, kerosene, etc. and had multi-legged walkers the size of aircraft carriers. Whereas England discovered genetic engineering two hundred years early, and their tech revolves around “beasties”. Giant animals made of all kinds of cobbled-together bits of DNA.
Alek and Deryn’s paths cross when the Leviathan crashes almost on top of Alek’s hideout. The Leviathan is a flying whale. Almost like that one Doctor Who episode. Except the Leviathan has been genetically engineered to be a hydrogen blimp that generates its own hydrogen via an entire ecosystem of little animals and bees that live around and inside it. So the human crew are constantly monitoring the ecosystem.
But all that’s just the setting. Deryn constantly lives in dread that someone will find out she’s a girl, especially the lady scientist on board the Leviathan who takes her as a cabin boy.
I’d say this is all spoilers, but it’s not. Because although one episode of their adventures ends with the first book, the plot continues in Goliath and Behemoth. Which I’ve not yet laid my hands on. So I have no idea what happens, or how all this oddball technology affects the outcome of World War 1.
If you’re interested in steampunk but haven’t seen any decent adventure books that use it, this book is the toe in the door for breeding an entire genre of alternate-history novels. Also it’s juvie fiction. Which automatically makes it awesome.