Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey (Expanse Series #1)

  • TITLE: Leviathan Wakes (Book One of the Expanse Series)
  • AUTHOR: James S.A Corey*
  • PUBLISHER: Orbit (UK)
  • PUBLICATION DATE: 2nd June 2011

Leviathan Wakes is the first science fiction novel I have ever read. Well, that’s probably not strictly true, since exposure to early sci-fi at school and university make that claim untrue, but the sentiment is there: Leviathan Wakes is the first science fiction novel I’ve read, that sits comfortably in the category of modern SFF.

What a choice to start with.

There were minor issues with the first book of the Expanse Series, but they were just that; small details or niggles that related more to my personal preference than the overall effect of the book. Any book will have small niggles and no book is perfect, especially the first in a series: the writer is setting up the world and the plot, both at the same time, and it takes time. Skilled writers will do both simultaneously, and Corey managed that.

I’ll say now that I was impressed.

I have never read “space opera” before, and honestly, I’m uncertain as to what general consensus takes it to mean. I’ve taken to thinking of it as follows: Space Opera is to science fiction, what Epic Fantasy is to fantasy. Not a hard and fast rule, but it works for me and my purposes so far. In every way, Leviathan Wakes was a new adventure for me.

It aims to fill the gap between humanity’s colonisation of the solar system, and our flight beyond into the deeper unknown of space. It does a good job of imagining what humanity will begin to evolve into, given the chance to develop without constant gravity. A lot of science fiction chooses to have Earth or near-Earth level gravity on its space stations, colonies and colonised domes, so this was a bit of a change. I suspect it helped set the mood better for the tensions between Earthers and Belters, creating more noticeable differences between the two sides, but it worked well despite feeling a little engineered.

The narrative skips between two characters, and these POVs alternate throughout the novel.

Jim Holden, native of Earth and XO of the Canterbury—an ice hauler en route from Saturn’s rings—is a general good guy who has had a lot of free time on the Cant to think about his mistakes and his dishonourable discharge. He believes in doing the ‘right thing’ and sometimes doesn’t think things through as much as a situation requires. Essentially he is a very well-meaning, honest idealist. So when he becomes the catalyst for a shooting war between Mars and the OPA, and everyone in the solar system wants a piece of him, with few friends and many enemies, Holden has to navigate the virtual battlefield well enough to keep himself and his crew out of the firing line.

Detective Miller hails from the colonised Ceres. Working a private security contract and still nursing feelings leftover from a divorce, Miller isn’t at his best. He’s getting old, jaded and is long-past too tired. Living on the Belt lends a certain perspective; when even your air is shipped in from a place difficult to locate on a map, it’s hard to be the idealist that Holden is. But when Miller is given an under-the-table assignment, a favour for the shareholders, things begin to change. The target is Juliette Andromeda Mao, and he’s to find the rich girl runaway and bring her back to mummy and daddy. It’s your average kidnap job. Nothing to speak of…until finding Julie appears to lead him straight to the centre of a brewing war, in the middle of which, Jim Holden seems to be standing.

When these two men cross paths, the whole galaxy threatens to go to hell.

The plotting is tight and every detail of the story is well-executed. Both character arcs are seamlessly interwoven and neither outshines the other. Holden and Miller are constantly on equal footing and maintain a constant status quo. They are both very different men, and therefore stories, but impossibly compelling and fantastically individual.

The best part of Leviathan Wakes is the way the characters are written. I have scarcely read a book with such strong, real, normal people presented as characters. Not a single character, main, sub or minor, is a stock type and nothing is forced, staged or feels like a plot device. The people in Leviathan Wakes are just that; people.

It makes for astoundingly enjoyable reading. Everyone has a personality all their own and it’s something often lacking to a point in much SFF. Sure, not all characters are stiff and wooden and not all are cliché, but Corey goes the extra mile in Leviathan Wakes and really raises the bar on his to craft believable, real, and compelling characters. It’s all so damn natural.

And it’s why I bumped my initial rating of four stars, up to a full-rounded five. Leviathan Wakes reads like watching a film or TV series: the characters are so real that they move off the page and the writing that accompanies them is stylish, sophisticated and gives them the perfect stage upon which to shine.

It’s a gritty(ish), dark and biting little insight into the darker side of humanity, that holds the worst analysis of the human condition in one hand, measured against the best of it in the other. It’s a classy, smart and grown-up read that is utterly engrossing and worryingly accurate.

Definitely a winner.
*James S A Corey is the pseudonym for writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

5/5

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