Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy embodies what I think steampunk should always stand for--changing society through advanced technology, and subordinating the authority of the upper classes.
In the past few years, I've been hard pressed to find a steampunk series that didn't involve vampires or zombies. Not that I think I'd dislike them, it just wasn't what I wanted to start with. Leviathan focuses on tech over paranormal activity. Specifically, Leviathan features a clash of technology between Darwinists and Clankers. Darwinists are the countries that manipulate life strands (their term for DNA) in order to fabricate animals for purposes such as messengers, airships, and war beasts. Clankers are the countries that use diesel-powered mechs for transportation and warfare.
We first meet Prince Aleksander of Hohenberg, while he's playing at war with a set of figurines, immediately setting up how sheltered the kid is for an older teen. Alek learns that his parents, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, have been assassinated and he must go on the run so he does not meet the same fate. Austria is a Clanker nation.
Meanwhile in England (a Darwinist country), Deryn Sharp joins the British Air Serivce, and takes on the name Dylan Sharp to hide she is a woman. Although this is alternate history, women still aren't allowed to join the military or vote in 1914. Deryn ends up on the airship Leviathan, a fabricated ship in the image of a whale.
The entire trilogy is told from the perspectives of these characters, whom Westerfeld endows with two distinct and entertaining voices; Deryn's slang and Alek's confusion over English phrases will make you grin. Alek and Deryn don't meet until more than half-way through the first book, a pace that develops tension between the characters before they even meet. We learn that while Alek is smart, skilled in many areas, and evokes sympathy from the reader, he is also spoiled with a hefty sense of entitlement. Deryn is all of those things, but her sense of entitlement is that she is entitled to equal treatment, whereas Alek thinks he deserves superior treatment.
Alek does a great deal of growing throughout the series. In Behemoth, the second book, Alek meets up with a group of revolutionaries in Istanbul whom he honestly believes are mad because they believe in women's right to vote. I was firmly a fan of Alek at that point in the story, and just had to shake my head at him. It's a great bit of dramatic irony since we know his beliefs are going to have to change once he discovers Deryn's secret. Westerfeld's tone also makes it clear those beliefs are the flawed thinking of his character, not himself.
Deryn doesn't do nearly as much growing as Alek, but the thing is she doesn't need to. Deryn is dedicated not only to her own interests, but to the protection of Alek, her country, and the world. Deryn has the strongest head on her shoulders of any of the characters in the series, and she always knows what to do in high pressure situations. Deryn is all kinds of awesome, but she is not at all a Mary Sue. Deryn studied and trained vigorously to gain her skills as an air service member. Obviously, she isn't loved by all the boys, and she certainly isn't revered by everyone she meets. Deryn's biggest flaw is her stubbornness when it comes to Clankers. She is sure Darwin tech is superior to Clanker tech (Alek feels the inverse), but her prejudice wanes somewhat when the Leviathan is fitted with Clanker engines.
I've heard the complaint that Westerfeld's characters are paper thin. This trilogy is the first I've read from Westerfeld, and while his characters aren't the most complex, they have more to offer than the paper thin complaints I've heard. The important thing for me is that they are interesting characters who make unusual choices rather than the choices expected of them. I wouldn't make Deryn any less awesome than she is--I just wish she had more room to grow.
Westerfeld missed a few opportunities with the SF elements. Early on in Leviathan, someone mentions that human DNA fabrication is illegal. This seemed like foreshadowing to me, but a part-human part-animal fabrication never showed up in the series. The conflict between the two technologies leaves a lot to be desired. Alek refers to Darwinist creations as "ungodly," and Deryn defends them by saying it isn't any different from someone eating meat. I differ from Deryn on this point because creating a dog with two snouts and six legs is unnecessary, and probably painful; I don't recall any explanation as to why six legs improves them. Because the conflict between the technologies takes a backseat to the conflicts between the countries, the Darwinist tech seems like back drop created to make war fun. There are many life or death moments in the trilogy, but I always felt sure everything would be fine. Alek and Deryn are affected by battle as it is happening, but trauma doesn't occur in them as strongly as one would expect once the battles are over. They're strong, but they aren't superhuman.
Clanker tech plays a much bigger are more threatening role in the series through the use of weapons invented by Nikola Tesla. Tesla was an inventor whose work was not used in warfare, but Westerfeld sets him up as an asset to the Clanker cause with his Tesla Cannon, which the historical Tesla referred to as his death ray. It's not until Goliath that I finally felt the depictions of war were no longer romps through history. Instead, Westerfeld brings up questions often considered during war. Do you kill a few to save many? Is anyone ever entitled to make that decision, or does the certainty that one does have such authority make him evil?
Westerfeld wraps up the series with a BRILLIANT development in Alek that the fantasy genre could use more of, being a genre which often celebrates the notion that a person is qualified to rule over people just because they were born to a certain family.