Leviathan Wakes, is the first novel of The Expanse series and I am in love in a big way. It’s sci-fi, it’s a detective story, there is intergalactic war brewing, there is something horrific happening in space that is maybe going to cause this war, there is the alcoholic detective, the do-gooder righteous space captain, the rogue war-hero, and a missing girl who is at the centre of all of this. There are heads floating in space asking for the help, hands creeping along by themselves, something building something out of organic matter. This is not a novel for the faint of heart.
James S. A. Corey is the pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, as collaborations go it is a snappy read and not weighty like some sci-fi, this is the kind of book you can read half of in one sitting. And this book seduces you in the ways you would demand from a good read. It’s been heralded as ‘a block buster’ read and I agree, no matter how much I jumped in and out and tried to make it last longer this is a novel that really gets in your head and stays there vividly.
The novel is set in the far future, humanity is in the infancy of space colonisation, and Leviathan Wakes sees most of our species flung across space into Mars and the Belt (along Jupiter’s mineral rich rings). However this colonisation is still aware of its dependency on Earth. Despite an advanced navy, Mars is still in the process of terraforming and relies on Earth for survival. The residents of the Belt have become almost another human species with generations having never experienced planetary gravity. The Belt itself seems almost like a scattering of shanty towns that are kept destitute by comparison to Mars and Earth, but this is thanks to trade agreements and tariffs enforced by the planets. The pressure on the Belt is gradually pushing the rebellious Outer Planetary Alliance (OPA) and others into escalating acts of violence.
The narrative is set within the Belt and told by two perspectives: Joe Miller, a jaded, alcoholic Belter cop who is searching for a missing rebel girl from a rich family, and Joe Holden, the ex-navy, now good-guy ice miner who stumbles into the wrong place at the wrong time.
Holden and the crew of the Canterbury stumble across a call for help signal while making runs from the rings of Saturn. They find a derelict ship, the Scopuli, seemingly abandoned or pirated and evidence of something that could cause war. Holden being the righteous good-guy, broadcasts his information to who ever that will listen and while all the guns point in the wrong direction, muddles his way through the mystery of what has actually happened with his crew.
It’s Miller’s job and hopeless luck to find Julie, a rich girl and run away, for her parents. He is the archetypal detective going to seed, divorced, alcoholic, not a people person, and obsessive when he’s got a puzzle to solve. While he hunts for the missing girl he witnesses his space station crumbling into riots and political turmoil. Miller reveals racial frictions between Earth and the Belt and the hardships of life trapped in a tin can surrounded by a vacuum. Unsurprisingly Miller’s obsession with the puzzle of where Julie is leads him to Holden and the Scorpuli.
This is a very cleanly written novel with good pacing, there are several climactic events that are handled very well. The world feels and reads as plausible, attention to detail and physics are put at the forefront of concern. The threat of being smooshed into jelly thanks to high velocity travelling or being crushed by gravity or suffocating from oxygen loss or through shoddy maintenance of filters aren’t understated, this is life for our characters. Little details really make the world pop, they are real threats that aren’t solved through shortcuts or miracle tech gadgets. There are means and rules to this world and nobody is safe from the dangers of space.
Holden and Miller are also two very different men. Miller is used to making his problems disappear by (probably) throwing them out of airlocks and he is genuinely a hard and bitter man. But when Miller is faced with the need to survive he takes it at any cost. Holden is righteous to the point of recklessness, he acts before thinking of the consequences but unlike Miller, Holden is not alone. Holden gets reigned in a little by his crew and the camaraderie that cements them together as a unit. The differences between these two characters also give two very different perspectives on how to handle the correct application of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. The readership also ultimately questions whether Miller has a tenuous grasp of reality and how far that has gone into his dealings with right and wrong.
As well as a wonderful pace and narrative, this novel delivered a really satisfying ending, there comes a point where there is a lull and you think everything may be okay now. Wrong. The tension rises again and there are space fights and rebels and a high velocity space chase. Over all this novel was brilliant. Distinct characters, a pressure cooker of a universe waiting to erupt and something sinister lurking on the fringes of a mystery. I cannot recommend this one enough. Bring on book two, Caliban’s War.