Saturday, July 27, 2013

Leviathan Wakes


         Okay, so the rundown is as follows: Leviathan Wakes is a space opera somewhere between Consider Phlebas and a Cronenberg flick, the story of a group of desperate and damned people who have to figure out what's going on and why before the human race brings itself to extinction by playing with toys it doesn't really understand.  It has some incredibly gruesome imagery, some of the tightest writing in a space opera since the late Iain M. Banks left the field. The plot weaves its way between sci-fi noir and gritty starfaring, finally letting the two collide and showing just how out of place each genre is in the other's story. Jim Holden and Detective Miller are two very strong protagonists, and watching them bounce off one another is wonderful.
            The bad is that there is no unified story here, but two stories that manage to fit together. There's also a very lopsided way of going about the whole antagonist thing, at one point having them be a faceless group of high-powered ship breakers and in the last act having them be incredibly un-threatening, to the point that the reveal in the third section of the book is decidedly underwhelming, even with the stakes being raised in each successive chapter. 
              But in total, this is a book well worth reading and buying. James S.A. Corey is a pair of authors to watch, and you should give them your undivided attention.

"All right. Keep an eye on him, but no need to get too worried. Nothing we're doing here is illegal."
"You mean other than arriving in our stolen Martian warship, sir?"
"You mean our perfectly legitimate gas freighter that all the paperwork and registry data says is perfectly legitimate?"
- Holden and Naomi

              I'm a little reluctant to take book recommendations from people who are friends of authors. It tends to skew objectivity when you have someone's good friend recommending the book to you, or a lifelong fan of the author who now is professionally recognized enough to be a blurb on said author's book telling you how awesome a book is and how you should read it. At present, Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, the men who operate behind the pseudonym "James S.A. Corey" have a lot of friends. They're part of Critical Mass, the "writer's mafia" in New Mexico. Ty Franck used to be a researcher for George RR Martin*. They have a lot of high profile nerds and geeks in their corner, and everyone's been pimping the hell out of their books. So it was with a skeptical eye that I approached the first book in their Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes.

             Thankfully, I was wrong and the book outshines the stigma that made me reluctant to pick it up in the first place. Leviathan Wakes, while not treading particularly new ground in the "grounded SF" field, manages to take the tools it's been given and at least make something interesting out of them. The plot unfolds in a series of escalating chapters where things continue to get worse and more dire, driving up the stakes even as the main characters make another narrow escape and win by inches. The threats seem very real until the last third of the book, and the victories seem hard-won, and that's a good thing. It's okay for the bad guys to spend part of the book winning. It's okay for the bad guys to spend the whole book winning. It's a way to make a very real threat feel, well, threatening.

                  Leviathan Wakes is the story of James Holden and Detective John Miller. Holden begins the book as the executive officer of a water hauler called the Canterbury, delivering water to the stations in the outer planets. Humanity has, you see, colonized most of the solar system. As the book opens, there are a few tensions between Mars, Earth, and the "Outer Planets Alliance" a group who gain popularity among the people who live in the asteroid belt and further out towards the edges of the solar system. However, no one's started shooting yet. Holden and his crew, while looking for ice to break down for their business, find a gutted ship. Immediately thinking "salvage", the crew goes on board to discover a strange transponder...

                At the same time, Detective Miller is on Ceres Station. He passes his time trying to figure out why minor criminals and bagboys are disappearing to on the station. However, his boss has bigger plans and gives him a simple kidnap job to find Juliette Andromeda Mao, an heiress whose parents want her brought back to Earth for some reason. However, his path starts to intersect more and more with some kind of conspiracy. He's watching the news in the bar one night when a broadcast comes through explaining that someone's just declared the Mars navy is attacking water haulers. A man named James Holden

And then things get weird.

               As it turns out, Holden's attempts to bring the people who led his hauler into a trap and Miller's attempt to find Julie Mao and bring her home are more connected than either of them think. The two of them get involved with several governments in an attempt to uncover a plot to test a foreign element left before humans even existed. Holden and Miller will have to brave corporate bases, make their way through space stations under attack, and finally stop a rogue organism from infecting earth itself to ensure the safety of the solar system. If only for now. 

                   What I like most about the book is the way it's plotted. Holden and Miller start off in very different places, Holden taking the odd-numbered chapters and Miller taking the even-numbered ones, the two of them switching off on point of view every chapter. However, time moves forward in each chapter, so something Holden did in the previous chapter is now observed and acted upon by Miller. This continues until the two of them finally meet each other, when the chapters continue to advance one after the next, but the two characters are together. The effect does diminish as the book goes on, but each chapter tends to end on something getting worse that the next character has to try and deal with, and I appreciate the way the tension ratchets up as it goes along. 

                     The characters are also very well-formed. Holden and Miller are strong protagonists, though there's an issue I'll get to later, and their underlings are equally well-formed. All of their dialogue is very natural, and neither author spares any profanity or odd language in their characterization. Miller is shown to have a certain rumpled and shabby quality to everything he does, and even his internal thoughts come out hard-bitten and hard-boiled. Holden and his crew are pretty much truckers who, by the end of things, wind up with their own freelance troubleshooting operation. In their dialogue, however, they never really shed the blue-collar tones. It helps the book that the characters are actually down-to-earth for once, instead of being the usual either grizzled military types or upright citizens or somewhere in between. These are people, not archetypes, and the way they handle the world is very real. 

                    Finally, the world design is praiseworthy. While there are maybe two or three planets mentioned, the solar system has an appropriate scale. Even the way the spaceships are built feeds into the world design...with no need to be aerodynamic, people started building towards function rather than form, which means you have ships bristling in guns and engines with very cramped metal corridors and spaces on the inside, none of which look particularly pretty. The only pretty ship that is mentioned is the Nauvoo, a ship that becomes something of a recurring plot item. You're waiting the entire book for them to use it. The Belt has its own patois, a mixture of words that sound like things that could be a language, but not quite. And even the projected outcomes of a war have been built into the backstory. Let's just say it's not a good idea to go to war with Mars. 

                      But there are some pretty big flaws. For one, it's kind of clear they wanted Holden to be the main character, as he kind of tends to be in the right more than he's in the wrong, and while Miller repeatedly chides him for stupid decisions, he never seems to stop making them. The only thing that seems to change about Holden is his viewpoint on other people. The other main issue with this is that Miller is in some aspects a much more interesting character. Holden has a few flaws, but he's for the most part a "holy fool". Even one of the authors admits this. Miller, on the other hand, is incredibly flawed and spends his time doing the right thing and, for the most part, being treated like a villain for it. Now, part of it may be that I'm more naturally predisposed to Miller...I'm something of a cynical optimist, after all, but it seems like Holden's being set up to be the protagonist, and the more compelling Miller is set up to be a secondary character, despite half the chapters being from his point of view.
                   The other big flaw has to do with the threat in the novel. In the first half, all the threats are very well thought-out, and get this-- they're winning. But approximately halfway to two-thirds of the way through the book, suddenly the threats lose their power. The undefeatable enemy with their army of stealth ships that launch waves of nukes and take out Martian battlecruisers suddenly and immediately defang, becoming little more than a nuisance while another threat takes the stage. However, the way the change-over happens is kind of a's less overcoming an enemy and more just shoving one out of the way for the other.

                    But does this stop the book from being an amazing blow-out-all-the-stops space opera that people should be proud of? No. In fact, hell no. This is a book worth buying. Especially since the series just hit three books. Read this book. I don't care how. I'd prefer not an ebook, because then more money goes to the two brilliant minds behind James S. A. Corey, but I don't care. Read this. It's worth the read. 

- Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
- Invisible Monsters Remix by Chuck Palahniuk

- Drood by Dan Simmons
- Reamde by Neal Stephenson
- Seed by Rob Ziegler
- Hot Head by Simon Ings


*Who from this point until when he finishes ASOIAF will be known in this blog as "Professional blurb-writer and editor George RR Martin". 

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