Saturday 23 May 2020

Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey

I came to this book in a rather backwards sort of way, in that I first heard of The Expanse TV series which sounded interesting (but I don't subscribe to SyFy or Amazon) then learned that it was based on a book series – so I found that instead. Also called The Expanse, the book series (eight novels and counting) is written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey. The first book in the series is Leviathan Wakes (published 2011), so this is where I began.

The setting is remarkably like that of Charles Sheffield's Proteus trilogy, reviewed here last time. In both, it is a few centuries into the future and mankind has spread throughout the Solar System (but no further) with sizeable colonies on Mars (which is undergoing terraforming) and on various asteroids and moons. There is permanent political tension between the Earth, Mars and the OPA (the rest). Those born and brought up in the low gravity of the Outer Planets are taller and thinner, but (unlike Proteus) that's through natural causes rather than deliberate body-forming.

The story structure features two principal characters: Miller, a cynical over-the-hill detective on – or rather in – Ceres; and Holden, an idealistic officer serving on board a transport spacecraft. There are several plot threads: Miller is trying to locate Julie, the estranged daughter of a powerful Martian family with whom he is becoming obssessed; Holden sees his ship destroyed by unknown assailants and is determined to find out why; and Julie stumbles across something truly horrific in an abandoned spacecraft. These threads spiral around each other, gradually revealing a system-wide conspiracy as they all connect up in the latter part of the story. The ending is intriguing and sets up the next volume, so this one should be read first.

The writing is of a high standard. The environments in which the story takes place are well thought through and the writing conveys the atmosphere of the various places strongly. The main characters seem very real and both have significant flaws, which makes identifying with either of them a bit more difficult than usual. In parallel with this, the plot contains some real dilemmas, with strong issues of law and morality prompting intense arguments. This is very much SF for adults, and the review extract on the cover ("As close as you'll get to a Hollywood blockbuster in book form") does the story no favours in my view, since I generally regard "blockbuster" as implying "appeals to the lowest common denominator" and this story is much better than that.

One aspect you should be aware of is an element of horror which becomes stronger as the story develops. I don't much like stories about zombies and suchlike, although I find them rather more tolerable in fantasies like Mark Lawrence's, perhaps because these are less real. The setting of Leviathan Wakes is realistic enough, and sufficiently close in time to the present day, to be believable, and that makes the horror seem all the more intense.

This book was nominated for a Hugo award and deservedly so – it is one of the best SF stories I've read in a while, if not quite as enjoyable as I would prefer.


Carl V. Anderson said...

Nice review. I've read the first three books in the series, and enjoyed them all, but have not kept up with it. I'm very bad with series that go beyond a trilogy as it ends up getting too difficult to remember just what happened last time when the next book finally comes out.

The series has been pretty good thus far, though even with that I've only watch the first two seasons. By and large I like the casting.

Interesting I didn't feel like they overplayed the "horror" elements you allude to where they certainly could have. At least for me what I imagine reading the book was far scarier than what materialized on screen.

Anthony G Williams said...

Welcome, Carl!

Thanks for your comments on the next couple of books in the series. In fact, I have the next three sitting on my shelf, but they have to take their place in the queue...

I agree that it's much better to have a tautly-plotted trilogy following a consistent story line, but most publishers want to build on success by adding endless sequels.