Why I Read It: I’ve been wanting to read this beast ever since it was released last year. James S.A. Corey is a pen name for authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, the latter a favorite of mine. However, the book, clocking in at nearly 600 pages, was just too thick for me to justify buying a physical copy, so I told myself I’d wait and get it on Kindle. And when I do that, I end up waiting and waiting and waiting…. what broke the holding pattern was Leviathan Wakes nomination for a Hugo, and since I signed up for a supporting membership, I knew I’d finally get a chance to sit down and give this a shot.
One note: while the Hugo Voter’s Packet did provide me with a “free” copy of this book, the only option was a pdf document, and there was no way I could read a 600 page novel as a PDF document on my computer, nor was I planning on printing it out. That kind of heavy-duty computer reading is reserved for my own manuscripts, or beta-reading others, which means I’m in a more critical mode. Which is a long way of saying that I did buy a copy of this book (downloaded it on Kindle), despite it being available in the voter’s packet.
The premise: ganked from authors’ website: Welcome to the future. 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.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Nay. I’ll talk about the story in broader terms, and why I think it’s so well constructed. However, if you’re in a hurry and want the down-and-dirty wrap-up, just skip to “My Rating” and you’ll be fine. Everyone else, onward!
Discussion: So, first thing is first: given that Corey is a pen name for not just one, but two authors, how does that work? Apparently, Ty Franck wrote the chapters for Holden, and Daniel Abraham wrote the chapters for Miller, and they edited the bejeezus out of each other’s chapters. The result is a very pleasingly consistent voice through-out the novel, so consistent that unless you already knew the book was written by two people, I don’t think you’d guess.
And that right there is one of the very reasons I think I glommed onto the novel so quickly. Not because of the mechanics behind who wrote what, but rather the sheer focus of two points of view. Sure, the prologue gives you Julie and the epilogue gives you Fred, but those are one-shots. The meat of the story is told from two characters, and that means you have more than amble time to really learn about those characters and how they view the world. Lesser authors would’ve given the reader far more points of view, just so the reader could see what else was happening during this conflict, but ironically, and this is my opinion, that can take away from the main conflict itself. Holden and Miller are such different characters that part of the joy of turning the pages was to see exactly what would happen when they met, and once they meet, part of the joy of turning the pages was to see what kind of, pardon the term, bromance would evolve. Don’t like bromance? FINE. Friendship. Relationship. Seeing how these two men would work together and come together to achieve a similar goal. Or fall apart trying to do the same thing.
The next thing that really grabbed me was the sheer excellence of the world-building. The differences between the Inner Planets and the Belters was stark and immediate, and I loved the inherent tension between these two groups of people. We see it right away during Holden’s first chapter, when he’s checking up on one of his men in medical:
“The inner planets have a new biogel that regrows the limb, but that isn’t covered in our medical plan.”
“Fuck the Inners, and fuck their magic Jell-O. I’d rather have a good Belter-built fake than anything those bastards grow in a lab. Just wearing their fancy arm probably turns you into an asshole,” Paj said. Then he added, “Oh, uh, no offense, XO.”
And then there’s the mechanics of the world-building. I’ll be the first person to admit when it comes to space opera, I really don’t give a fig about how realistic FTL travel is, or whether or not people should be able to walk around on ships just like they would on Earth. I grew up watching Star Wars, people! Of course I don’t give a fig about that harder, more realistic science stuff!
That being said, that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it when an author takes the time to show me how things are different from that science “fantasy” expectation, and while Leviathan Wakes is not hard SF, there’s enough fascinating and realistic-enough detail that it could easily fool you into thinking it is. That’s because Corey creates limits, shows the reader that not everything is easy, and that our solar system, let alone our universe, is an unforgiving bitch when it comes to its toll on the human body. Here’s a scene where Holden is starting to feel the side-effects of flying at too many g’s, and also, I just love the way this is described:
His muscles vibrated like plucked strings, and his peripheral vision was dappled with points of imaginary light. The first twinges of the post-juice crash were starting, and it was going to be a bad one. He wanted to enjoy these last few moments before the pain hit.
There were just so many details that captivated me. Like Holden’s parents consisting of five fathers and three mothers. Or how Belters gestured with their hands instead of shoulders or heads, because hand gestures were better seen when an environment suit is worn. I love this stuff! So many little things that make all the sense in the world, but things I would’ve thought of if I were brain-storming this story myself.
Also, when it came to Miller and his dialogue, I kept hearing him as Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach from the film adaptation of Watchmen. And that was awesome. Also, while I liked both of our leads rather equally, I think I was fonder of Miller at the end. I had more moments where my heart ached for him, and I loved the ups and downs of his story and how he grew and evolved.
What about the story? I was fascinated to watch just how all the little pieces came together. Like what really happened to Ceres’ riot gear and why. How Julie’s Razorback ship turned into a major plot-point. How the tale is a first-contact story, but not. How it’s SF horror, SF noir, hard SF, space opera, with a tiny splash of romantic sub-sub-sub-sub plot. This book has so many layers, and there’s so much to enjoy, that I was consistently glued to my Kindle despite the length of the book.
And I loved the cast. I loved how they played off each other, how they grew to feel like a family.
I did have a few nitpicks: despite being distinct characters, I kept getting Amos and Alex confused because both names were four-letters and started with an A. I also was amused to see how the plot sometimes manipulated the characters into acting a certain way, but before that moment happens, the characters decide something that makes the plot manipulation far less obvious, because it turns into an opportunity rather than the characters being forced into something they didn’t want to do. That probably makes no sense without reading, but it’s a little thing, a funny thing, and one I admire for its sleight of hand.
Another thing, but this is more personal preference than an issue with the book, I tend to zone out during dogfight scenes (aka, space battles!) because reading them is rarely as interesting as seeing them. However, there were very few dogfights in this book, so I didn’t have too many opportunities to zone out.
Also, I would have KILLED for a map. It probably wouldn’t have been all that clear on the Kindle, but I would’ve killed for it anyway.
My Rating: 9 – Couldn’t Put It Down
Literally. It took me four days to finish, and that’s darn impressive considering the page count! Every time I’d reach the end of a chapter and thought about doing something else, I’d then go, “Oh, I’ll just read one more chapter,” and then I’d reach the end of the next chapter and the same thing would happen all over again. I love how Leviathan Wakes blends all kinds of genres, because we get space opera, SF horror, SF noir (!), a teeny-tiny love story, and even the illusion of hard SF, even though the authors say it’s not. It’s a story that’s quite grounded in its POV characters, and the conflict inherent in the world-building is fascinating. There are so many layers to this book that just when I thought there couldn’t be any more, I’d be wrong. While it’s not a perfect book, I was so engaged that I had to stop myself from downloading the sequel, Caliban’s War immediately, but now that I’m done with the book, I can’t wait to read more in this world. Good thing, too: because there’s a novelette in addition to the sequel waiting on me!
Leviathan Wakes is definitely one of my favorite books nominated for the Hugo this year. It doesn’t take the very top slot, but it’s a very, very, VERY close second, so close that I may need to sit back and compare my one and two picks before committing them to the ballot. I’d easily recommend Leviathan Wakes to any fan of SF or space opera. It incredibly readable, and while I wouldn’t say it’s a gateway SF novel, you wouldn’t have to have a WHOLE lot of SF under your belt to be able to read and enjoy this without getting tripped up on any of the SF-nal world-building.
Cover Commentary: Love this. I love the coloring, and I love how you can’t mistake it for anything other than it is: space opera. And now that I’ve read the book, the giant block of ice makes so much more sense than it did before.