Review – Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan_WakesI was pretty skeptical about Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). It looked like entry-level SF being cynically marketed as a sort of big-budget sci-fi blockbuster. The cover even looks like a movie poster, a splashy starship-porn cover with the title in big bold sans-serif font; a blurb on the cover of the third book in the series explicitly makes the comparison. It’s even being developed as a TV series.

But Leviathan Wakes turns out to be a hell of a good read. No one here was just looking to cash in; the writers are clearly fascinated by the world and characters they’ve created, and they’ve really taken care to craft a satisfying story.

The setting and tone is mid-future space opera (the century is never mentioned) when humanity has spread out into the solar system, dividing up into three simmeringly hostile factions: Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planets Alliance that advocates for the populations in the asteroid belts and the moons of the gas giants. There’s a fair amount of political and economic background, skillfully explored and effectively integrated with the action.

The story follows two characters in alternating chapters, narrated in third-person limited: Miller, a cop on the asteroid Ceres, investigating the disappearance of an Earth woman at the behest of her moneyed family; and Holden, the executive officer on an ice-mining vessel. Their narratives merge around the book’s halfway point; over the course of the novel, both of their circumstances change drastically, as various ships are destroyed out from under Holden and the increasingly tense political situation caused by the repercussions of those ships’ destruction complicates Miller’s investigation. The situation throughout the solar system grows more dire, with attacks and reprisals by the three factions, until a sinister experiment conducted on a remote research station raises the stakes from high to really quite horrifyingly stratospheric.

The characterization is solid, though at times it wobbles a bit — at some point in the book’s second half, other characters start discussing what a paragon of righteousness Holden is, and it feels less like a character’s development and more like the authors’ conception of the character simply changed over the course of writing the book.

Miller, on the other hand, is a marvelously compelling character who thankfully manages to avoid most of the standard detective clichés. He’s more poached than hard-boiled, a man who only gradually realizes that his life has deteriorated to the point that it can’t really be put back together again. The arc of his story is well-developed and even quite touching, ending with a strange, poignant quasi-reunion that provides him with a sort of redemption. It’s very rare that I get “something in my eye” when reading a novel, but I definitely teared up as I sat in a coffee shop reading the resolution of Miller’s own story.

The supporting characters are generally fun, especially Holden’s shipmates Naomi and Amos (there’s another shipmate, Alex, who felt a bit underwritten until later in the book). The dialogue has a nice dry wit, and the prose is particularly fine in places — most consistently when the authors take some time with their characters’ states of mind:

He [Miller] was aware of having two different minds. One was the Miller he was used to, familiar with. The one who was thinking about what was going to happen when he got out…it was the shortsighted, idiotic part of him that couldn’t conceive of his own personal extinction, and it thought surely, surely there was going to be an after.

The other Miller was different. Quieter. Sad, maybe, but at peace. He’d read a poem many years before called “The Death-Self,” and he hadn’t understood the term until now. A knot at the middle of his psyche was untying. All the energy he’d put into holding things together — Ceres, his marriage, his career, himself — was coming free. He’d shot and killed more men in the past day than in his whole career as a cop. He’d started — only started — to realize that he’d actually fallen in love with the object of his search after he knew for certain that he’d lost her. He’d seen unequivocally that the chaos he’d dedicated his life to holding at bay was stronger and wider and more powerful than he would ever be. No compromise he could make would be enough. His death-self was unfolding in him, and the dark blooming took no effort. It was a relief, a relaxation, a long, slow exhale after decades of holding it in.

There are a lot of elements of hard SF in the descriptions of space travel: orbital mechanics, propulsion thrust and how it can be used for gravity on a space vessel, how high-G maneuvers would pretty much ravage the human body. If you want a realistic depiction of how transportation in a solar system-wide civilization would feel, this is it. The one thing that felt off was the lack of any sense that the planets actually revolve around the sun at different rates. In this case, it felt like the planets were all lined up in a straight line on one side of the sun, rather than scattered all around the ecliptic with some on the other side of the sun (not even mentioning asteroids like Ceres and Eros in their own orbits).

The action scenes are brisk and engaging, with the punchy, nervous feel of real peril. Unlike several books I’ve read recently, Leviathan Wakes doesn’t feel rushed and frenetic at the climax, with the authors nervously trying to backfill excitement into a story where it doesn’t quite fit. Instead they let the danger they’ve set in motion, as well as the consequences of the choices the characters (and the whole human race) have made throughout the story, evolve with a tension that feels both organic and thrilling. I’d been dreading some sort of bombastic blockbuster climax as I read, but what I got instead was a skillful balance of ratcheting tension and honestly earned emotion.

I’m not a huge watcher of dramatic TV series, but I’ll make a point of watching this one when it airs.

Stray observations:

  • I posted recently about bits of the Finnish language in English-language SF, so it was a bit of a thrill to find a passage of Finnish here amid the random babble of a proto-intelligence incorporating bits of human consciousness into its matrix: “…ja minä nousivat kuolleista ja halventaa kohtalo pakottaa minut ja siskoni…” According to my buddy Dave Google this translates (slightly incorrectly—nousivat should be nousevat) as: …and I will rise from the dead and decry the fate that forces me and my sister…”, which, yeah…that’s super-creepy.
  • Speaking of super-creepy: going in, I really wasn’t expecting a horror element here — a pleasant, and very thrilling, surprise.
  • On the other hand, the character names are disappointingly unimaginative. Probably this was an attempt to ground the characters in realism, and I’m not asking for exotically Banksian Culture names; but every time I saw the name Fred Johnson I had to wince. Of course my name’s Smith, so maybe I’m more sensitive to mundane names than most folks.
  • I only now got the pun in the title — Leviathan’s wake. Right? Because Leviathan’s a sea monster? Incidentally the word Leviathan never shows up in the book.
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