In Brief: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey is good science fiction/space opera set in our solar system. The first in a trilogy (naturally), this book provides strong characterization and a mix of detective fiction and military sci-fi.
Pros: Corey’s two main characters are interesting dudes with problems who also give us a solid foundation of the book’s universe. The belters vs. inner planet politics and conflict is very well done, and the pacing and basic writing are effective. We also dig the old-school cover art.
Cons: A couple of overly familiar themes lie at the heart of this book: a first contact scenario (albeit a different take on it) and the evil and greedy military-industrial corporate antagonist. However, these are relatively minor issues.
Review: A reasonably plausible future setting with space travel, inter-planetary politics, ship-to-ship battles… Add elements of mystery and possible extra-terrestrial contact. Sounds like space opera, which is where Leviathan Wakes firmly plants it flag. Along with time travel stuff, space opera is the subset of science fiction I enjoy most, but man, oh, man is this a subset that can be (and often is) done poorly. Fortunately that doesn’t happen with this book. James S.A. Corey (pen-name for the collaborative duo of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) knows the pitfalls of the genre better than most.
The story begins with the hostile boarding of a freighter by unknown raiders. Julie Mao, who only appears in the prologue but nonetheless becomes integral to the plot, is the last person to avoid capture. Presently we meet Jim Holden, XO of an ice-mining frigate, and his fellow crewmates. They come upon the distress signal from Julie’s ship and change course to investigate. Upon their arrival they find an abandoned, obviously raided, freighter and soon find themselves under attack.
On the asteroid belt (belter) colony of Ceres, Detective Miller, the other p.o.v. character, receives a side-assignment from his boss. He’s supposed to track down – you guessed it – Julie Mao. Turns out Julie is the daughter of a powerful industrialist back on the lunar colony, who divorced herself from her parents after college and came to the belt to help them advocate for their behalf.
The book alternates between Holden and Miller as the early plot focuses on Julie’s disappearance and how that ties into whoever keeps trying to kill Miller and the remainder of his crew. Within that framework, the authors introduce us to a very intriguing future world in which the inner planet powers (Mars and Earth) lord it over their colonial outposts in the belt. Humanity has not yet reached the stars (or faster-than-light travel) but they have spread out into the solar system.
The belters, feeling lorded over, do have an independence movement, and it turns out Julie was a member. Holden, an Earther, soon finds himself wrapped up in these politics when he learns and broadcasts that Julie’s ship and his own ice-freighter were attacked by the Mars Military. Miller, a belter, becomes more obsessed with Julie the more he learns about her.
The characterization of Holden and Miller is very strong, adding a lot of enjoyment to the story. They are alike in that they’ve both made mistakes (personally or professionally) that led their lives down a much different path than they’d anticipated as younger men, and they both find themselves caught up in extreme events. These events force them to adapt and change and ultimately accept who they are.
The belters and Mars find themselves on the brink of war, and Holden and Miller discover each other and that they are both pursuing the same mystery. This leads to possible evidence of extraterrestrial contact and a fairly outrageous related conspiratorial subplot involving an evil corporation.
If we had any complaints bout the book, it would be that said conspiratorial subplot is semi-ham-handed and a pretty familiar cliche of contemporary sci-fi. Yet the authors handle it fairly well. It adds a lot of excitement and action to the final third of the book, and certainly sets up for the next portion of the story. Ultimately, I found myself drawn in by the Holden, Miller, and the supporting players. This, along with the effective pacing and writing style, placed this book squarely in the good column.
Bottom Line: Leviathan Wakes shows that space opera never goes out of style – so long as you have good writing and compelling characters. I’m looking forward to reading the next book, Caliban’s War, sometime soon.