Leviathan Wakes: An excellent mix of character and action

James S.A. Corey The Expanse 1. Leviathan WakesJames S.A. Corey The Expanse 1. Leviathan WakesLeviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes, though it lists only a single author (James S.A. Corey) is actually a collaborative effort by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Since Abraham, author of the LONG PRICE QUARTET and more recently The Dragon’s Path, is one of my favorite fantasy authors, I had high expectations for this science fiction effort and I have to say they were pretty much met. Leviathan Wakes was a fun ride throughout, an excellent mix of character and action.

The setting is a mid-range future where humanity has colonized much of the solar system with vibrant if hardscrabble habitats on Mars, the Moon, various asteroids, and many of the planetary moons. As the outer colonies grow, they strain more and more under their dependence on the inner planets, and tensions between the groups are rising. What sets a match to this political tinderbox is the discovery of a derelict spacecraft harboring a secret that will shake the foundations of the solar system and set planets and colonies one against the other.

Central to the events are Jim Holden, second officer aboard the ice-towing ship that finds the derelict, and Miller, a detective on Ceres assigned a seemingly trivial job that will eventually connect with the derelict ship. While Holden is surrounded by a small, tight-knit group, Miller is mostly a loner, save for his fish-out-of-water new partner who grew up in the inner system. We swing back and forth between Holden and Miller’s stories for a big chunk of the book, then the two plot lines eventually converge and the men come together.

Leviathan Wakes reminded me quite a bit of old-fashioned sci-fi, the kind of stuff I grew up on — Asimov, Heinlein, and the like (though much better crafted). It’s a relatively restrained future; we haven’t gotten to the stars yet (though a generational starship is being built), no faster-than-light travel, no consciousness dumping into new bodies, no technologies we wouldn’t recognize today really. There’s a gritty sort of feel to it as well. The future isn’t all bright and shiny and aerodynamic. Instead it’s carved into rocks via tunnels that measure their standard width via the old coal-car mining tunnels on Earth, the rocket ships are ugly and boxy rather than sleek, people live in domes or “holes” — no terraforming here. And the outer colonies have a definite Old West/Wrong Side of the Tracks feel. As Miller says, “There is no law; there are cops.” “Justice” is a bit more gray than it is back on Earth, and may just mean someone gets “spaced” rather than brought in for trial. The science behind all this is plausible enough without going into much detail and I’m sure those wiser than I in the ways of physics or chemistry could rip lots of holes in it. There’s some definite handwaving going on — how do they get around? Epstein Drive. What’s an Epstein Drive? It drives spaceships. (OK, they give us a little more than that, but not a lot). I’m perfectly happy with that level of scientific foundation for my science fiction, preferring the balance to be on the “fiction” side. Others who prefer rock hard science may find some items to complain about.

If the scientific foundation is perhaps a bit thin, the social foundation is much less so. Though here, again, I’m sure one could complain about the plausibility or logistics of how these societies arose. But what we have here feels utterly real, whether it is the tension between mother planet, early colony, and later colonies or the increasing prejudice based not on color or religion but on geography (inner vs. outer); or the way people live, or the variations between say Ceres and Eros, or the Navy spaceships and the mining spaceships (or even, apparently, the Martian spaceships and the Earth spaceships).

Leviathan Wakes is fast-paced for its 500+ pages and moves along mostly smoothly throughout. I don’t mind slow much, so as with the science, I was happy throughout. I read it in one sitting, but I can see how some might say it lags in a few places. Part of the action is a mystery — what was in the derelict, who is driving events, is the solar system being manipulated into war and by whom and for what purpose, what happened to the missing girl Miller is tracking, and so on. Part of the action is a long chase scene with several smaller chase scenes and mostly involve Holden trying to keep his people alive. Saying more would spoil too many plot points. Suffice it to say at one point Holden expresses relief that for the first time in a long while, he exited someplace that wasn’t blowing up behind him.

The mystery and chase scenes create a book that is at times reminiscent of classic noir TV or film — the sad sack rumpled detective defying his superiors to doggedly chase a little case — and at times a sweeping space opera involving space battles, space marines, and the like. Both forms work separately and together.

The story is intelligent, exciting, and compelling. There are also nice bits of humor throughout; I laughed aloud a few times and chuckled many more. But what really makes this a standout book is the characterization, which comes as no surprise as that has also been Abraham’s strength in his fantasy novels. Both main characters are sharply defined throughout, both when we meet them and as they change (or not) due to the events they’re caught up in. Even better, they stand as near-polar opposites of each other in many ways — Holden the idealist and Miller the cynic. Watching them separately is fun; watching them together is a ball. It is also moving when they are in conflict, which is a testament to how well the characters are drawn and how attached one gets to them as a reader. What adds to the impact is that though they stand at such extremes, the authors place them in situations where the reader can’t easily say one is right while the other is wrong. Another way the story is enhanced is via structure, because once the storylines converge, we get to see each main character from his opposite’s viewpoint, offering us insight into both.

Beyond the two major characters, the side characters are also fully fleshed out. This mostly involves Holden’s small crew, who really feel like a family before we’re too far in (an easy if somewhat cheap comparison is the Firefly crew), but also includes Miller’s partner and even Julie, whom we mostly learn about through Miller’s efforts.

Leviathan Wakes ends with just about everything resolved, but the authors have plans for several more novels and novellas in this world setting and personally, I can’t wait for the next one. Highly recommended.


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BILL CAPOSSERE lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

View all posts by Bill Capossere

2 comments

  1. I tend to lean more toward the fantasy side of the genre, so I put this one off for awhile. What a mistake! When I finally read this I loved it and blew through it in a day or two. Can’t wait for the next book!

  2. Brad Hawley /

    I’m convinced by both the review and the comment above!

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