Friday 18 November 2011

Book Review | Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

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Humanity has colonized the solar system - Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond - but the stars are still out of our reach.

Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, The Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for - and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations - and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.


You know what the first thing I wanted to do was, when I finished reading book one of The Expanse? Read book two of The Expanse. And mayhap the third after that. You set 'em up, Orbit, and I'll knock 'em down!

Truly, I could not get enough of Leviathan Wakes. To be perfectly frank, I'm not the biggest SF fan - though equally I suppose I am far from the smallest - yet this masterful collaboration checked off every one of my marks, before proceeding to tear right through the census. Were it not for Embassytown, and the months of new genre releases still stretched out before me, I'd declare it the best science fiction novel of 2011 right now and call it a day. Furthermore, much as I love my Mieville - and I love my Mieville - in terms of pure, unadulterated fun, Leviathan Wakes would handily take the cake come that particular cage match.

But apples and oranges: after all, Leviathan Wakes is sprung from a very different oeuvre of SF than Embassytown, with its towering intelligence and its inextricably literary smarts, might be said to signify. It is, as per George R. R. Martin's bang-on three word blurb, "Kickass space opera." Well, quite. Consider my ass kicked black and blue.

The first thing you need to know about Leviathan Wakes - that is to say the first thing after it's awesome - is that it is very much a book of twos. That it comes from the pseudonymous pen of two distinct writers - namely Daniel Abraham, author of The Long Price quartet and of late The Dragon's Path, and Ty Franck, assistant to the man and the mind behind A Song of Ice and Fire - two distinct writers working together for the first time, no less, is only the beginning of its duality. Yet it factors.

Rather more notable, and I would assert not unrelated to that precursory split, is the twofold division in its narration, for through its slightly bloated course Leviathan Wakes alternates between chapters told from the perspective of two men, worlds apart in space and purpose. For years, XO Jim Holden has been doing laps around the solar system, which humanity has long since colonised as of the start of The Expanse. But his half-cocked career hauling glaciers from asteroid to planet and back comes to a shocking conclusion when his ship, the Canterbury, is killed. Whether Holden and his close-knit skeleton crew survived the devastation by accident or design remains to be seen, but determined to do The Right Thing, he broadcasts evidence of the unprovoked attack on the hauler far and wide.

So begins the First Solar War.

In fairness to Holden, the self-righteous so-and-so, it's been a long time coming. Practically since mankind took to the stars, there has been a certain tension between those folks who call Earth and its immediate surroundings home, and the Belters, who hail from the Outer Planets, where life is nasty, brutish and short. On Ceres Station, through which flows "a river of wealth and power unrivalled in human history," doggone Detective Joe Miller provides a perspective in ideological opposition to Holden's; he's a glass half empty sort of guy, while the XO's cup is always full. Miller is too well placed to see the effects of Holden's unwitting declaration of war, because from the moment of his address, tensions between the Earthers and Belters on Ceres - already near boiling point - suddenly erupt.

It's all Miller can do to keep the fragile peace as "the great, implacable clockwork of war ticked one step closer to open fighting," so when his chief dumps a kidnap job on the bitter old detective, he thinks little of it. Yet through it all, it is the disappearance of Julie Mao - the rebellious daughter of one of Ceres Station's security force's biggest financial backers - that plays uppermost on Miller's mind. Then, when open conflict ultimately comes, and the detective is promptly divested of his position, it is her trail he follows... and it leads him all the way to Holden, and his merry band of intergalactic idealists.

So it is that two become one, and Leviathan Wakes at last takes to the stars. I'll admit I had my reservations about this collaboration beforehand - the self-same trepidatiousness with which I approach all such works - and though a truly gripping pre-credits tease did a great deal to dissuade them, as the first book of The Expanse wore on, the narrative's stark duality began to jar. Clearly one perspective was written by one author, my head said, and the other by another; as fine a way as any to divide collaborations, so far as it goes, but initially it felt as if I were reading a pair of discrete tales spliced into one peculiar-looking entity.

That's as may be, but rest assured: when Leviathan Wakes finally comes together, by the dead does it come together. In fact I dare say it's a moment made all the more powerful because of the time it takes for Franck and Abraham to enmesh as authors.

When the season to celebrate the year's most singular literary feats arrives, I very much doubt Leviathan Wakes will be deemed a contender. More's the pity, for short a slight sag in the middle and the air of disparity inherent in most collaborative works, it makes for terrific science fiction. That is to say terrific "working man's science fiction," as Corey notes in the incisive interview supplementing the value-packed e-book edition - and snobbery is as snobbery does, so do not expect the Nebulas to take note.

Doesn't mean you and I shouldn't sit up straight in our chairs and devote our collective attention, because the first book of The Expanse boasts some of the most thrilling action in recent memory, and a world - nay, a universe! - brilliantly built yet not overdesigned, courtesy a minimalist aesthetic which rings all too true. It features a cast of characters which, however archetypal, make for fine, fun company; a pace that rarely flags; and moments of excruciating tension, and skin-crawling horror to boot.

If Leviathan Wakes is not particularly thoughtful SF, then it is the perfect reminder that sometimes... sometimes it's nice to turn down the power, and let someone else do the heavy lifting for you. In that regard, I put to you that the entity James S. A. Corey could hold the very universe on its shoulders.


Leviathan Wakes
by James S. A. Corey

UK & US Publication: June 2011, Orbit

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  1. Leviathan Wakes is certainly my favorite SF of the year, beating out Ready Player One and Embassytown for the position. The book has flaws--the characterization is thin beyond the main characters, the prose is just as unimpressive as in the rest of Abraham's novels, and the book feels overlong at times--but it is a solid read and a lot of fun.

  2. Alright, what you did there was off-handedly mention Ready Player One in the same breath as Embassytown and Leviathan Wakes... don't think I don't notice these things!

    Now I'm all for a bit of nostalgia in my narratives, but is Ready Player One really all that? Was it mean-spirited of me to overlook it because it sounded a bit on the silly side?

  3. The problem with Ready Player One is you rarely hear anything about it beyond the hyped eighties geek nostalgia. I was three when that decade came to an end and even though I know enough of eighties pop culture to get by in the novel, there is no fondness in my heart for the decade I never knew. I picked up the book because it was supposed to be good, but the nostalgia focus and oft-mentioned dystopian setting almost put me off it.

    Do I think it is "all that"? No. Nostalgia does not inflate my opinion of it either, so I don't think it is nearly as good as others have made it out to be.

    However, there is a very good book to be found underneath the nostalgic grunge. At its heart, there is a simple black and white narrative that roots for the little guy and reminds us, often quite harshly, that this is not a children's novel or an eighties flick starring some plucky teen, that there are consequences, often violent or even deadly, to ones actions. That is what appeals to me, what made it worth my time, and what places it so high.