Leviathan Wakes: An excellent mix of character and action

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsJames S.A. Corey The Expanse 1. Leviathan WakesLeviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

FORMAT/INFO: Leviathan Wakes is 592 pages long divided over a Prologue, 55 chapters and an Epilogue. Extras include an interview with the author and an extract from Caliban’s War, the second book in The Expanse series. Narration is in the third person, alternating between Executive Officer James Holden and Detective Miller, except for the Prologue (Julie) and Epilogue (Fred). Leviathan Wakes is mostly self-contained, coming to a satisfying stopping point, but the book is the opening volume in The Expanse series and will have at least two sequels: Caliban’s War and Dandelion Sky.

June 2, 2011/June 15, 2011 marks the UK/North American Trade Paperback publication of Leviathan Wakes via Orbit Books. Cover art is provided by Daniel Dociu.

ANALYSIS: When it comes to reviewing science fiction, I’m hardly qualified considering how little of the genre I read, but even I can recognize great science fiction when I see it, and Leviathan Wakes definitely fits the bill.

Written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the pen name James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes is a space opera novel set in a future where humans have colonized the solar system and are on the verge of launching their first generation ship. It’s a future that immediately feels authentic because of the numerous details and believable concepts — Belters with their altered physiques and different worldviews, Inner/Outer planet prejudice, the effects of gravity on spaceships and space stations at different g-force — used by the authors to flesh out the setting. At the same time, Daniel and Ty do an excellent job of making sure the reader isn’t overwhelmed with too much information. So not only is there a sense of realism with the book’s futuristic setting, but it’s also easy to grasp.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAs far as characters go, Leviathan Wakes features two main protagonists in James Holden and Detective Miller. Holden is the Executive Officer of an ice hauler, who eventually becomes the captain of the Rocinante, and is defined by his uncompromising moral fiber, a strong sense of loyalty to his crew, and his naiveté towards women and relationships. Miller on the other hand, is a washed up/world-weary detective for Star Helix security, who becomes too close to a case and is willing to do whatever it takes to see things through to the end. Miller is basically the polar opposite of Holden, so even though they are fighting for the same cause, an interesting dynamic arises between the two protagonists, especially regarding morality. Differences aside, both Holden and Miller are deeply compelling characters because of their fully developed personalities — Miller speaks to an imaginary Julie Mao, for example — human flaws, and sympathetic dilemmas. At least for me, I found it impossible not to root for the protagonists’ survival and success in matters like solving the Julie Mao case, Holden hooking up with Naomi, and Miller finding absolution. The supporting cast (Naomi, Alex, Amos, Fred Johnson, Julie Mao) meanwhile, is a bit underdeveloped, at least compared to Holden & Miller, but they work well as complements to the main characters.

Story-wise, Leviathan Wakes alternates between the narratives of James Holden and Detective Miller. Holden’s narrative involves broadcast information that sparks a war between Mars and the Belt and forces the XO and his crew on the run, while Miller’s narrative is heavily influenced by noir with the detective trying to figure out how Julie Mao, the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), the sudden decline of organized crime on Ceres Station and the Mars/Belt conflict are all connected. With the disintegrating racial tensions between Earthers and Belters added to the mix, Miller’s narrative felt a lot like reading a Richard K. Morgan novel. Once the two narratives converge on Eros and events start escalating, however, the action really heats up with the book’s climactic moments on Tycho Station and Eros bringing to mind Neal Asher and Peter F. Hamilton, while the novel’s horror elements involving the protomolecule eerily recalled Ridley Scott’s Alien and the Dead Space video games. Through it all — including moments both epic and intimate, exciting and thought-provoking — Leviathan Wakes is an incredibly well-crafted story highlighted by smart plotting, unexpected surprises, skillful pacing and a rewarding feeling of satisfaction once the book is concluded.

Overall, Leviathan Wakes is an amazing book. In fact, there is not a single negative thing I can say about the novel, which delivers in all phases including setting, characterization, story, pacing, prose, and pure entertainment. Simply put, Leviathan Wakes is the best novel I’ve read in 2011 — so far — and maybe the best thing Daniel Abraham has ever written, while introducing a remarkable new talent in Ty Franck. My only concern is whether the sequel will be able to live up to the lofty standards set in Leviathan Wakes, but I’m confident that Daniel and Ty will give it their best shot and I look forward to seeing the results of their efforts in Caliban’s War.

~Robert Thompson

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsJames S.A. Corey The Expanse 1. Leviathan WakesLeviathan 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.

~Bill Capossere

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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  1. Daniel Abraham sure is versatile…

  2. That’s for sure! And I love just about everything he has written…

  3. Another new series by Daniel Abraham is a good thing!!

  4. How does he find the time? Him and Brandon Sanderson. I think they have Time-Turners.

  5. No, it’s clones.

  6. 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!

  7. Brad Hawley /

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


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