And No, I Still Can't Understand the Cover Image

Alright, let's just get this out of the way at the start. Yes, the book is called Leviathan Wakes. Yes, it's the first in a planned series called The Expanse. Yes, it's a huge book, clocking in at 561 trade paperback-sized pages. Yes, that's right, it's a giant book that kicks off a series. And yes, the jokes just write themselves.

Which is good, because I sure don't want to!

So, Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey. The novel is set in the middle-distant future, at a non-specific point; the most we know is that it's a hundred and fifty years after Earth and Mars nearly went to war, which means there was a Mars strong enough to even go to war, which means decades at least in the future just to get there. Whenever it's set, humanity has advanced enough to colonize the asteroid belt and start the long process of terraforming Mars, but hasn't yet made it out to the stars. Their earlier antagonism mostly set aside, Earth and Mars are uneasy partners, alternately co-operating to oppress the Belt colonies and maintain the hegemony of the 'Inner Worlds', and jockeying to dominate each other and emerge as the solar system's sole superpower. Earth and Mars are largely remote from those living in the Belt, however, which are the people the novel is really concerned with. Particularly, Leviathan Wakes follows two viewpoint characters; Joe Miller, a functional alcoholic working as a detective on Ceres, and Jim Holden, XO on the ice hauler Canterbury making the run between the gas giants' rings and the Belt. Both men are relatively happy with their lives, but this being fiction of course that doesn't last, and soon enough both of them, and a growing web of their friends and allies, find themselves drawn into a situation that rapidly escalates from rich girls falling in with 'freedom fighters' and mass-murder to Earth firing off its entire store of interplanetary nuclear weapons and the very real possibility of Solar System War I. And since the author is a moderately knowledgeable figure, he understands that yes, ship-to-ship fighting is a serious issue, but the real war doesn't start until someone starts dropping rocks down gravity wells. Increasingly desperate to stop that from coming to pass, Miller and Holden struggle both together and separately to do what they can to expose the murky beginnings of the conflict and stop those most dedicated to seeing it come to fruition.

Leviathan Wakes is many things; Miller's sections are noir and police drama, with some body horror thrown in there, while Holden's are more old-school space opera, with gunfights and space battles and a plucky crew on a tough little ship. That might make the book sound like a bit of a hodge-podge, but Corey does a very solid job of keeping the overall tone of the book consistent, and of blending the various elements into each other. You can see it when you look back on it, say when you're writing a review of the book for your blog, but while you're actually reading the book it really doesn't seem as though there's any reason you shouldn't go from body horror to wild-flying space battles to transhuman philosophizing to political manoeuvrings. It's all very organic, really.

There is one thing missing, however, and I do think the novel suffers from it, if only a bit. Really, I think the author could have done with a slightly larger scope. I know, I know, the book is already a monster, but in terms of what the reader directly gets to see it's very limited. The only two viewpoint characters, after all, are both living in, loyal to and culturally steeped in the Belt colonies. Through them, you get a sense of what the Belters think of what's happening, of how they react to the moves Earth and Mars and even the Belt 'freedom fighters' make over the course of the novel. But you never really get a look at what people on Earth or Mars actually think, just supposition on the part of the characters and a few odd talking heads on the public affairs programs of the day. It would have been tricky to include them, given that the action all takes place out in space, but it really would have been nice to get a look at how the people of the Inner Planets react, particularly once it looks like their two worlds are going to end up in a serious shooting war, one that may well end with rocks falling down the gravity well onto either the heads of Earth-bound humans or the dome-cities of the Martians. It sort of feels like watching Ugandan secret agents working to stop a war between the US and China, without ever getting a look at what's going on within either of the two superpowers themselves.

That said, though, the absence of Terran or Martian viewpoints only moves the book down from 'completely flawless' to 'really excellent'. Despite its size, I never really felt overwhelmed by the book, nor did I find myself worrying about the kind of 'ending fatigue' that huge novels, with multiple plotlines to wrap up and multiple climaxes to work through, can all too easily fall prey to. And while the author downplays the hard-science elements in a little interview after the end of the novel, it's a relatively solid, 'realistic' depiction of space travel. There's no artificial gravity, and thus no safe way to travel at really high speeds because of inertial pressures on the crew, the ships are armed (those that are, at least) with railguns and nuclear missiles rather than the more exotic options available in science fiction, and the Belt colonies are equal parts fantastic and brutally functional, just what you'd expect from industrial areas that have grown into residential colonial spaces. There are also corporations everywhere, with the author doing a relatively good job of balancing between the corporate-less utopian Star Trek-style future and the corporatocratic future of the cyberpunk-derived dystopians. There is an 'evil' corporation, because of course there is, but for the most part the corporate entities you see are just trying to sell a half-decent product or service for a reasonable mark-up to make a decent buck; they are, in other words, pretty much like the real, non-mustache-twirling corporations of today, just scaled up or out or sideways, as appropriate. It's not a completely perfect world; Earth and Mars are a little too monolithic (especially given Earth's population of 33 billion), and the technology is basically just a generation ahead of ours (there are no apparent cyborgs or AIs or neural interfaces or...). But it's a solid, believable place full of solid, believable characters, and if Corey chose not to take full advantage of the freedoms literature affords the science-fiction author, well, he wouldn't be the first or, likely, the last.

And, without giving too much away I hope, it seems like Corey is using Leviathan Wakes not as a techno-social end-point, but as a familiar jumping-on point for the reader. By the end of the story things in the solar system look set to change in a very big way, and it remains to be seen just how well Corey can harness those changes narratively. Hopefully he won't be overwhelmed by the host of new possibilities and potentials available to him by the end of the book, but even if he is, well, at least Leviathan Wakes can still stand as a solid, enjoyable, sprawling space opera full of horror, mystery, political manoeuvrings and space battles.

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