"Leviathan" by Scott Westerfeld
The first book that I finished in 2013 is an alternate version of WWI, where the German and Austria-Hungarian forces fight with mechanical animals and the British forces fight with genetically engineered animal machines, clankers and beasties, respectively. Alek, the (fictional) son of Archduke Ferdinand is forced into hiding after his parents' assassination. Deryn, a young Scottish girl disguises herself as a boy to join the Royal Air Service. They meet in Switzerland, where Deryn's airship, the Leviathan, crash lands near Alek's secret hideaway. They find that they have a lot in common despite cultural and military differences and decide to trust each other.
The semi-steampunk flavor of the book is all right, but what I find really imaginative are Westerfeld's "beastie" creations. The lizards on the Leviathan can scramble around with their sticky gecko feet, but they serve a purpose as messengers, speaking in the voices of the humans that "record" the message. The flechette bats are fed metal spikes that they then "drop" on the enemy in the natural fashion. The Leviathan is a huge whale like creature that fills itself up with hydrogen and floats like a zeppelin. The controversy of manipulating nature in this way is not glossed over. Alek and Deryn each openly criticize and secretly admire the innovations of the other's culture.
The writing style is simple enough for middle school readers who are just learning about world history. In the afterward, Westerfeld points out the historical facts and fictions in his book, which will probably stir up some interest in the time period. There is an inkling of romance between the young main characters, which I'm not so keen on, but we'll see how he continues that plotline. Leviathan is the first in a series of three books. B-