Series: The Expanse #1
Publisher: Orbit Books
Released: June 15, 2011
James S.A. Corey delivers compelling SF that ranks with the best in the field. In Leviathan Wakes, ice miner Jim Holden is making a haul from the rings of Saturn when he and his crew encounter an abandoned ship, the Scopuli. Uncovering a terrifying secret, Jim bears the weight of impending catastrophe. At the same time, a detective has been hired by well-heeled parents to find a missing girl, and the investigator’s search leads him right to the Scopuli.
The expanse series has been emphatically recommended to me, and Leviathan Wakes is certainly a very strong start. It’s set against an interesting backdrop in which humans have colonised Mars, and where Mars and the people living there have become independent enough to be at political odds with the planet whence they came, but not quite independent enough that a certain level of political amiability isn’t required. There are also a communities living on stations in the asteroid belt. They dislike everyone, they’re disliked by everyone, and they have plenty of things to be legitimately outraged about.
In other words, there is plenty of tension, and potential for things to be thrown seriously off balance, and go very wrong, if something out of the ordinary were to happen.
Leviathan Wakes is the story of something out of the ordinary happening.
We’re dropped right into the story, which is a pleasant surprise for a book that needs to establish both a new series and a new universe. The backstory of the universe is expanded upon implicitly in the story, and it never has the feeling of “right, here is what you need to know for the next chapter to make sense.” When the plot relies on politics or backstory, I somehow just knew what was going on. It seems effortless, and it’s refreshing not to have to be taken out of the rhythm of the story in order to understand it.
At times I forgot that I was reading sci-fi, and I mean that in the best possible way. The reader gets to follow two “tracks” through the story, that of Detective Miller, and of Captain Holden. When we’re with Miller, the story feels like a detective story. He has a down-to-earth, old school way of approaching problems and viewing the world. When we’re with Holden, the story feels like an adventure. Holden is a well-intentioned idealist who will uncompromisingly do what he believes is right. These are two very different outlooks on a situation that quickly becomes complex and uncertain enough for the line between right and wrong to look very blurry.
The story is wonderfully dark, and it becomes increasingly unsettling as the characters learn more about what is going on. It reads like a solid story that just happens to be set in space, and doesn’t use shiny, sci-fiy, things as a way of distracting from its deficiencies. It also avoids the trap of getting bogged down in the science. Now and then we are served up seemingly scientific justifications for what’s going on, and while there are probably plenty of holes to be picked in a lot of the explanations or tech that is used, they are satisfying enough to make the plot seem plausible.
Miller and Holden are both great characters and develop significantly, in ways that become pleasingly relevant to the story. Even though they have very different outlooks, and some very different opinions, on what is going on, the reader can never fault them for what they do or think. We know enough about their background for their actions to be perfectly understandable. Not necessarily correct, but understandable.
Some of the other characters, especially the ones that become important to the story, could have done with more fleshing out. While they are all given some degree of backstory, their motivations are not clear. The interactions between the characters are excellent and feel natural, but beyond Holden and Miller the rest of them are a little too perfect. They feel like part of the backdrop. I would have liked to see more flaws and depth in them. They must have had more doubt, mixed feelings, and emotions than what we see in the book. Instead they come across as being a bit drone-like.
Leviathan Wakes is a great opener for the expanse series, and it’s more than just a fun piece of sci-fi. It’s a gritty, substantial, and exciting story that introduces a world in which I can see a lot of interesting stories taking place. It’s definitely a series I’d recommend getting into.