Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
This is slightly more complicated than usual so, to clear the decks for action, let’s get a few facts on the record. When you pick up Leviathan Wakes, you see the author’s name as James S. A. Corey. This is another of these team-writing combinations involving Daniel Abraham and [a partner], in this case, Ty Franck, this being his first appearance in novel form (click here for Ty Franck talking about the genesis of this book). Second, this is the first of a planned trilogy (de rigueur these days for any “author” who wants to be taken seriously in these quantity-over-quality times) titled The Expanse. For those who like forward planning, the remaining titles are Caliban’s War and Dandelion Sky.
Well, as those of you who read these reviews will know, there are occasional times when I give up and throw a book across the room in disgust. I came very close to doing just that with this book. No matter how interesting a book may later become, this starts out in a completely leaden style. It’s also grossly overwritten with a morass of detail bulking out the length to no good purpose. If there’s an attempt to engage the reader, it passed me by. I felt no emotional investment in any of the characters on display and nothing of interest seemed to be happening apart from a possible rerun of The Thing towards the end where the human and alien bodies blend together as a single organism in some mysterious way. Great, I thought, science fiction meets horror without any brains. However, I kept going just long enough to become interested in the plot. I can’t honestly say the writing style improves to any degree but, as a big SFnal idea, this proves to be quite good. So having listened to Ty Frank’s description of how this trilogy came to be written, I can explain matters as follows.
Leviathan Wakes has a clever central idea and the politics of the response to it are well worked out. Insofar as it’s also a detective story, the way the investigation proceeds also shows good logic. The psychological make-up of the detective may not be very credible but, in the end, I forgave his shortcomings because he does manage to get to the right place at the right time to get a reasonable outcome. To that extent, the plot is realistic in that we end at a state of balance. Nothing is immediately resolved, but there are opportunities for a negotiated settlement. This shows a cool and logical mind at work in producing a gaming scenario. The mistake was in involving him in the writing. I have great respect for Daniel Abraham as a solo writer. His previous team efforts have also been impressive. Shame about this unless you want to read it purely for the ideas.
Structurally there are also oddities to come to terms with. The point of view in each chapter alternates between the detective Miller and a righteous space captain called Holden. In some handovers, there’s an overlap so we get the preceding chapter ending replayed from the other point of view in the new chapter. Similarly, we get loose ends hanging in the plot because the point of view doesn’t show us anything about what’s happening out of the sight of the primary protagonists. For example, when Holden and Miller meet up in Eros, what happens to Inspector Sematimba and how can the Meatgrinders (with or without the guidance of Protogen) be so successful in their takeover unless there are no conventional police responses?
So this is a difficult one. Looking back from the end, Leviathan Wakes is a reasonably good story, but getting to the end is a bit of a struggle. Ask yourself why you read SF. If it’s just for the ideas and you don’t care whether it’s well written or not, this is for you. Otherwise, this is probably not for you.
For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
Abaddon’s Gate written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.
Jacket artwork by Daniel Dociu.
For the record, Leviathan Wakes has been shortlisted for the 2012 Hugo Awards for Best Novel and the 2012 Locus Award for Science Fiction Novel.