Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Call me late for the party. I’ve never been a fan of traditional science fiction, preferring knights, wizards and dragons to aliens, FTL drives, and space stations. But as a genre book reviewer I’ve felt a certain amount of (internal) pressure to branch out.Leviathan Wakes kept coming to mind as I chose new books to review but I always managed to find an excuse why some other book was more appealing or would generate more traffic or what not. I should have known better.  I’ve read a good amount of Daniel Abraham’s work and have never been disappointed. His collaboration with Ty Franck, under the pseudonym of James S.A. Corey lives up to any expectations I had based on those excellent novels. Leviathan Wakes is science fiction for readers without advanced science degrees who are far more interested in plot and character than the actual science of our science fiction. This is space opera that eschews the usual trappings of the genre, and focuses instead on tight realistic world building and a character driven story that approaches the material from unexpected angles.

This is not to say, fans of space opera will be in completely unexplored territory. The world of Leviathan Wakes is infinitely familiar. Humanity has taken to the stars but remain limited to our solar system due to the limitations of the technology that has given them the planets if not the stars. By confining the characters to a smaller sandbox, Corey is able to overlay real world concerns and issues onto his interplanetary stage without getting lost in scads of exposition and explanation. The solar system is a world not far from our own once you scratch the surface. Divisive politics, prejudice, corporate greed and the small struggles of real people are the order of the day and readers will instantly feel at home in this zero-g landscape.

The novel opens with a mystery that feels so much like the “ice monster prologue” of A Game of Thrones that it feels impossible not to recall the connection between these authors and Martin. But it’s handled well and ties into the main plot thread quickly enough that I can’t begin to criticize the method.  The next two chapters introduce us to our viewpoint characters and this is where Corey’s writing really shines.

First, we have Jim Holden, the second in command of an ice hauler called the Canterbury. Holden is thrust into command of the remains of the Canterbury’s crew when his ship and most of his friends are murdered while on a mission of mercy near a small out of the way asteroid. Holden is an idealist, whose simple moralistic world view leaves him woefully unprepared for the consequences of his broadcasting evidence of the attack. Holden brings to mind the rough around the edges, good intentioned space captains from countless films and television shows in the genre, and Corey makes good use of the trope while subverting it by not having Holden stray into Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds territory at all. Holden is a man who wrestles with not his choices, but the consequences of them, all while trying to keep the remaining members of the Canterbury’s crew alive in a solar system on the verge of collapsing into war.

The second viewpoint character is Miller, a middle aged police officer on Ceres Station. Miller is in many ways the antithesis of Holden. With his career on the decline due to his depression and alcoholism, Miller is assigned to find the missing Julie Mao, who figures heavily in the prologue of the novel. Miller’s world weary, suspicious view of the world is in sharp contrast to Holden’s idealism and optimistic world view. Miller’s quest to locate Julie and his growing obsession with his quarry leads him to Holden and his crew in the middle section of the novel as the Belt and Mars inch closer and closer to out right war. It is quickly apparent that Miller is a damaged soul, the quintessential noir detective, and that finding Julie Mao is, at least in his mind, his last shot at redemption. When Corey brings Holden and Miller together the sparks fly as the two men’s conflicting world views lend the novel it’s most believable conflict. This unlikely pairing is the heart of the novel, and I often found myself wishing they could just get along, but knew that the story would be far weaker if Corey had followed the path of least resistance.

The crew of Holden’s ship, the Rosinante, is sympathetic and expertly drawn. In fact, they are in many ways more easily relatable than the two principal protagonists. I hope for viewpoint chapters from Naomi and Amos in the next volume. Each of the supporting characters, no matter how secondary to the plot have nuance and importance to the principal characters they orbit. While many of them can be easily described in terms of genre tropes, Corey’s delivery makes that familiarity a blessing rather than a curse.

Another highlight of Corey’s writing is the distinct sense of place that is evoked in the various locales in the novel. With the narrative spanning the solar system, it would have been easy for Corey to gloss over the specifics and focus on action, plot and character. Instead, every location has a distinct flavor. The casinos of Eros, slums of Ceres Station, and the more opulent environs of Tycho are all given equal time to shine with the details of the environment and its denizens woven so seamlessly into the narrative that the reader is in fact absorbing the material in a natural way. The characters experience their environment and we readers are merely along for the ride.  Even the ships that occupy so much page space have their own character and peculiarities. This attention to detail allows for a fully immersive experience that avoids info dumping in almost every instance.

With spaceship battles and pitched gun fights in the close quarters of space stations, Leviathan Wakes has more than enough action for genre fans. The choreography and emotional heft of these scenes is some of the best I’ve seen in any genre. Violence is never meaningless to those who are touched by it, and Corey never forgets that fact. Conflict always has repercussions to either the plot or the characters.

In conclusion, Leviathan Wakes is science fiction for lovers of story that like the science in the background and the human element front and center. If you want to explore science fiction but don’t care about astrophysics or the technical specs of every ship and firearm, Corey has written the book for you. Leviathan Wakes is poised to be a classic in the genre moving forward, a natural progression from the classics that came before with a decidedly modern sensibility.


  1. This book and the next two that come after it are some of the best space opera I've read in recent years!

  2. we'll turn you into a science fiction fan, just you wait! (I can only say that because 10 years ago I was a SciFi fan who would have never touched a fantasy book, and now I can't get enough of them)

    I LOVED Leviathan Wakes, loved Caliban's War even more, and I'm reading the 3rd book in the series, Abaddon's Gate, right now.

    This is science fiction adventure / space opera like I always knew it could be. I feel like these books were written just for me, they've got tons of everything I want in a science fiction book!