Thursday, June 30, 2011

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

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. 

LEVIATHAN WAKES is what I would deem a literary “can of worms”. Please allow me to expand on that.

James S.A. Corey (pen name of a joint effort by authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) has written a rollicking space opera with plenty of action, suspense and mystery. It actually feels like the more action-y brother to Alastair Reynolds REVELATION SPACE. In that it contains a mystery that needs solving and the end result of solving what the characters (and us as audience) thought was the whole puzzle turns out to be a small piece of a much larger and much scarier mystery. Thus the proverbial “can of worms” comment.

Corey borrows from friend author George R. R. Martin by having the narrative told though chapter character POV’s (just less of them). Though there is a chapter or two at the beginning that concerns the character Julie (before/as she goes missing), the majority of the narrative is told through two very distinct POV’s, ice-hauler XO Jim Holden, and noir-ish Ceres station detective Joseph Miller. The two are totally different, but they also seem to exist as two sides of the flipped coin. One side (Holden) errs on the side of justice and proper altruistic intentions, and the other (Miller) errs on the skeptical and lethal retribution side. Very similar in fact to the Professor X and Magneto dynamic. One wants peace because he knows peace is achievable if humanity can just weed out the riff raff and get those in power to agree. Meanwhile having been on the other side of life and seeing how humanity can corrupt itself and those around it, Miller shoots first and doesn’t bother to ask questions. This is actually the most interesting dynamic in the story, as every time I thought these two were starting to get along Miller would do something to astonish and disturb Holden and they would be at odds again. The side characters are well fleshed out and interesting, especially OPA leader Fred (who I picture as Morgan Freeman, which helps with the voice in my head). The love story part between Holden and Naomi is overblown and done on such a glacially slow level that even I was annoyed it took Holden so long. Miller’s hallucination of Julie Mao that is always present in his chapters is actually a GREAT narrative aspect. Having him sounding off her image standing near him, talking to her in his head ect. just made Miller that much more interesting. Definitely my fave character. Holden was too blatantly stupid a lot of the time for me to like him as much. He kept making rather boneheaded judgments and I wanted to yell at him through the book's pages.

The action is great and the space travel and tech involved is all plausible. I especially like little attention to detail like the simple explanation of no ship can really STOP in space, just throw it in reverse and get close. That was definitely done on a believable level. The alien menace that exists here is palpably strange and the mystery about it continues to go for the entire book, which was nice. There was no “solve it” and then 100 pages of “action”. I was still significantly mystified at the end, which is always a plus.

If the book suffers at all it’s in the pacing department. The book is about 550-ish pages long (large trade softcover) and it kind of doesn’t need to be. I felt like we could have chopped out about 200 pages and had a much tighter book. As it was there are whole sections where things are described or enacted VIA characters or between them that take so long that the pace drops right down near zero. Like when characters are discussing the latest news in-system about what’s going on in the "war" and how what they are doing currently is involved and affecting that. They spend FAR too long fleshing those bits all out so that everyone involved understands. The time it takes to do this really slows things down. Those passages could be handled in a much faster and simpler way and get the same point across. I sometimes found myself wishing they’d just get to the point so we could move onto more main event stuff.

It's as if they'll say "I want to do this" "Do you want to do this?" "Yes" "Are you Sure?" "Yes, I'm sure and here's why" "Oh I see, as long as you're sure, because it can affect things in this way too..." "Oh, true, but here's my counter to that"...

...that's a very broad way of looking at it but that's the crux of my only real complaint with the book and it doesn't happen TOO often, just enough that I noticed.

Overall a fantastic space opera with more action, intrigue and nasty corporations than you can shake a stick at. The characters are well developed, the story and tech are plausible and the mystery (as I said above) once solved, isn’t really solved and just made things blow open wider in preparation for the second book in The Expanse series titled CALIBAN’S WAR. Both author's behind Corey should be very pleased with this accomplishment as I have a very discerning taste in what I like in a sci-fi book (being more of a fantasy guy) and this one hit on all the right nodes for me. It had me guessing and enthralled right up till the last page of the epilogue. I’m very excited to see where they take this series next!

Note: This is also one of the most GORGEOUS pieces of sci-fi cover art I've ever owned. Kudos to the artist Daniel Dociu.

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