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Leviathan Wakes

This cover really doesn't say anything about the contents

Rating: B

Length: 561 pages, larger-than-standard paperback page size, standard paperback font size

I've heard a lot of good things about The Expanse, both the book series and the television adaptation. Given a choice between the two, I usually opt for reading, especially when it comes with the added bonus of contributing less to Amazon's bottom line. Anyway, the only thing I was really aware of about the series before getting into the book was that it's supposed to be one of the benchmarks of good Hard Science-Fiction. As someone who prefers the likes of Dune or Gundam to Star Wars or Trigun, that was enough to get me interested.

The main break from reality is the Epstein Drive, a fusion reactor capable of producing constant acceleration in the vacuum of space, allowing it to provide both artificial gravity (typically in the range of 0.3-1g, though high-end drives are able to go far in excess of that) and enough speed to cover the distances between planets and space stations on the order of weeks instead of inordinate amounts of transit time. There are some other fictional touches (like medical care being capable of restoring not-very-comfortable use of broken bones overnight or military crafts having railguns and fusion torpedoes), but with the exception of something that's important to the second half of the plot, it's all rather minor and easily acceptable in the context of Epstein Drives existing.

As an aside, I do appreciate that the book acknowledges how much vast empty nothingness there is in space. It's a nice break from works where it feels like a day of travel in a random direction is guaranteed to cross paths with yet another populated planet.

But I digress. The book focuses on two main characters: Holden, an Earth-born former Navy officer who's been working as Executive Officer of the ragtag ice-hauler Canterbury for several years, and Miller, a Belt-born noir-style cop on the space station Ceres. The book bounces between each one's perspective from chapter to chapter, with fairly minimal redundancy during the parts where the two are actually together. While I'm no stranger to shifting perspectives (I read the Wheel of Time series, for instance, and I use a similar approach in my book Deceit), I wasn't a fan of how it was handled here. The regularity of it felt forced and artificial, and frankly, I just didn't like Miller. I know there's a lot of personal bias in that (since I'm already a situationally-capable loser who deals with minor psychotic breaks from reality as a result of past trauma, that's not a particularly interesting character for me to read about at face value), so maybe he wouldn't be as much of a tedious annoyance for other readers, and his perspective is important for presenting much of the political tension between Earth, Mars, the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), and the average unaligned person living on a station in the asteroid belt, so I understand that he plays a key role in the work beyond just his obvious involvement in the plot. Nevertheless, just about every Miller chapter felt like a minor chore I had to go through to get back to a Holden chapter.

Fortunately, the Holden chapters were quite good. Not only did I find Holden himself more interesting (being a somewhat-naive idealist who believes strongly in free access to information meant he struck a better balance between being similar to myself and yet different enough to intrigue me), but his chapters also had a regular cast of secondary characters in Naomi (a Belter with electronic expertise, high emotional intelligence, and a general capacity to get shit done), Amos (an Earther mechanic with no poker face and little personal restraint), and Alex (a former Martian soldier who acts as the team's pilot and master of mental compartmentalization). The group plays off of each other very well, and while there's clearly more emphasis on Holden and Naomi than Amos and Alex, each one gets enough time to shine that I didn't feel like any of them were lacking exposure.

Introductory events notwithstanding, the plot kicks off with Holden witnessing what seems to be an act of war and needing to decide what to do with that information. I don't want to say more about it because it's hard to say much that would provide adequate context for understanding what it means without spoiling major reveals, and as was the case with Jade Empire, the realization of how those reveals recontextualize previous events is a key part of what I enjoyed about the story, so I don't want to take that away from anyone who might be reading this review without having read the book. Let it suffice to say that the plot was written very well, and even if the book as a whole seems unappealing to someone, I'd suggest reading a plot summary. That might gloss over the greater messages about bigotry, imperialism, fascism, and general cessation of power to corporations lacking incentives to be moral/ethical, but that all just builds further enjoyment on a very solid base.

Speaking of the plot, in truly science-fiction fashion, the logic of it works well independently of the setting. It wouldn't take much effort to convert this to historical fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, or more fantastical genres (so long as there aren't fantastical elements that would circumvent the points of conflict, of course). The reliance on realistic politics is one of the things I usually love about Gundam shows, so it was great to find a similar foundation to the story in Leviathan Wakes. I liked it enough that I intend to read more of the series, so I'm hoping that trend continues.

Unfortunately, I do have a major criticism beyond just not liking Miller. Corey (who is actually two people sharing a pseudonym, but that's not important) invests a lot of time into building up the political dynamics of the setting, and while that certainly does factor into events along the way, much of that happens either in the background or as side notes. It does influence decisions that the focal characters make along the way, certainly, but there's an outsized emphasis on worldbuilding for just that purpose, so I can only assume that this was written to be the first part of a series from its initial conception. That can be fine (I can be accused of having done the same with both of my published books, neither of which have any sequels at the moment), but I think Leviathan Wakes does it to such a degree that the ending left me feeling a lack of resolution despite that the main plot was unquestionably resolved. It didn't take my investment for granted in the way that I complained about The Way of Kings doing, but it did enough to feel like incomplete, and I think the main plot would've been good enough to leave me wanting more without that tactic.

That all said, ultimately, I did enjoy the book, and I do want to read more of the series. Recommended for any fans of science-fiction or political fiction that doesn't rely on a superspy protagonist.

Rating: B

Length: 561 pages, larger-than-standard paperback page size, standard paperback font size


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