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Leviathan Wakes – Book Review

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Okay, so this book kept on coming up everywhere I was looking on the internet.  Kindle store, io9, other sci-fi sites…  While I only ever read it reviewed on io9 and it piqued my interest then, it just kept on popping up everywhere else.  Maybe it’s Google’s fault for tracking all the stuff I look up on the web, or maybe the book is just very well advertised.  Either way, it’d been on my list long enough that I finally got it on Kindle.  Man, I read a lot of science fiction.

Leviathan Wakes, by James S A Corey (actually a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is a space opera that takes place between the orbit of Mars and the asteroid belt in our solar system.  Humanity has colonized the solar system, but we haven’t managed to get outside of it.  Leviathan Wakes is near enough to our time that people don’t know everything yet – technology doesn’t make us invincible, and we can’t get anywhere in the solar system instantly.  In the same way that I really enjoyed the relativistic limitations of Revelation Space, the human limitations in this book really worked for me.

Life isn’t perfect for humanity, either.  While we may have colonized the solar system, that doesn’t mean everyone gets along.  Like the political divides that plague our nations today, Earth, Mars and the asteroid belt don’t quite see eye to eye.  Resources, physical and linguistic differences, technology levels… there is a lot of existing strife between Earthers, Martians and Belters.

The book opens to find an unknown girl trapped by unknown assailants aboard an unknown ship.  Pirates?  Government?  Corporate?  It’s unclear.  At the end of her introduction, she breaks out of her prison to find her captors missing, and something horrible happening to what’s left of her crew.

The heart of the story starts on a cargo ship tasked with mining a valuable resource from asteroids far out in our solar system – ice, which can be turned into water.  As humans try to make other planets and bodies in the solar system habitable, they need massive amounts of water to seed and supply the operations.  Aboard the Canterbury is James Holden, second in command.  Their mission is paused when they receive a distress beacon.  In space, with so much nothing between here and there, helping people in distress is an obligation – no matter which side of the law they’re on.  Using a small shuttle, he’s instructed to go aboard with a small crew and investigate.  What they find is a dead ship, and a planted distress beacon of Martian origin.

As they are investigating the derelict – called the Scolpuli – a group of cloaked ships (which should have been impossible) appears as if out of nowhere and vaporizes the Canterbury, along with everyone left on board.  Baring witness to the event, and finding evidence of Martian tampering aboard the Scolpuli, Holden broadcasts the event and his suspicions across the solar system.

Meanwhile, on the asteroid belt station on Ceres, a detective by the name of Miller is an old hat at keeping the peace, and is about as dried up and as bitter as they come.  Still, he’s a stickler for the rules and he knows how to protect people and avoid a confrontation.  So when his day-to-day is interrupted by the report and accusation of Holden coming across all the airwaves, he’s ready (though loathe) to get to work and help keep the peace.  The relationship between the three main human cultures is unstable at best, and this report coming in makes any Martian on Ceres an immediate racial target for violence.

He’s ready to do his job and keep the peace, regardless of cultural origin, so when a commissioned request to track down a missing girl, he’s more than a little put out.  While he is law enforcement, it is not a government run operation.  Security is contracted locally, but he’s actually a paid employee of an earthbound corporation.  Matters are anything but simple in this arrangement, with belters working for earthers.  When his employer says “jump,” it’s his job to do it.  He’s told to look for a girl named Julie Mao, pick her up, and return her to her affluent parents on Mars.  Rich parents retrieving their runaway, just great.

As he begins to look into the affair, he gets drawn in by an overarching mystery surrounding her disappearance.  Julie didn’t leave home recently, but her parents have suddenly decided to bring her back.  Why now?  Why does the affluent daughter leave home to seemingly join a belter terrorist faction?  The trail leads Miller further and further down the road of obsession, and he ends up giving up everything he knows in pursuit of Julie.

The book alternates between Holden and Miller’s points of view, chapter by chapter.  Where Holden is the eternal optimist and seems to have a somewhat naive view of human nature and greed (which can be preachy and annoying at times), Miller is the pragmatist, always assuming the worst or understanding where reality will actually land.  Each of them does a great job of acting without thinking (one of the only traits they share), though from different points of view.  Their characters eventually cross paths and get to know one another more than either would likely have chosen as it turns out their individual missions cross:  Miller’s search for Julie Mao is actually connected to Holden’s quest to track down and punish those responsible for the destruction of the Canterbury.

The search leads both of them to the station on the asteroid Eros where Miller finds Julie, but she’s not what he expects at all.  This sets of a chain of events that leads to massive political conspiracy and out-and-out war.  Holden and Miller face down various factional differences between human populations, both eventually understanding that a greater threat to the human race in general may be realized.  Friends, enemies, allies, unwilling partners, it’s hard to describe their relationship.  They end up teamed up with infamous war heroes (or criminals, depending who you ask) and exposing a level of human greed and indifference that is just plain shocking.

Through it all, Miller maintains his stoic and obsessive focus (even faith) in Julie, or the idea of Julie, and Holden remains solidly rooted in his faith that given all the information, people will always do the right and honest thing.  Their respective approaches both serve and hurt them at the same time.  The end of the book finds an understanding between the two protagonists, and an unknown future for humanity in the solar system.  Not uncertain, just unknown.

This was an interesting book.  I bought it because it kept coming up, it had a cool cover, and it was supposed to be space opera.  While I can certainly see space operatic themes in play here, it ended up feeling much more like a film noir hard-boiled detective mystery in space.  It was so much so, that I often pictured Miller in a trench-coat and hat wandering around the various space stations and seedy bars conducting his investigation.  I think there was a bit of a nod to Isaac Asimov’s robot detective stories, in this vein (which is a good thing).  While the space operatic overtones had major powers vying for control over one another, the story ended up being about a couple of schlubs (word chosen intentionally) standing in their way.  Holden always pushed forward the hopeful agenda, and Miller was always there to pull him right back, and you really only saw the solar system from their points of view, not from the points of view of the larger forces at work.

I’m not into the horror genre at all, but this book also had definite nods to that type of fiction.  It didn’t dominate the book, though, and any horror overtones really just seemed to enhance the gritty hard-boiled feel of the book.  It also had undertones or maybe had even an homage to the Alien franchise, though there were no xenomorphs to be found.

I’ll be honest here, I liked this book.  The pacing was well planned, and the story and mystery was definitely enough to keep me into it.  There were mad stretches of constant action and uncertainty, followed by short respites for the characters, who barely ever had a chance to recuperate.  I don’t know, there’s not really much else to say besides that.  Of course I’m leaving a lot out of this review so as not to spoil how things go down, but it wasn’t the way I saw things developing, based on how the story presented itself up front (hard-boiled!).  That’s not to say it had a surprise ending, it was more like explaining the complicated social dynamics of a human race colonizing its home system, and then changing the conditions under which they (and the reader) thought they lived at the end of the book in such a way that you hope as a race we can pull it together instead of squabbling as Earthers, Martians and Belters.

I still won’t be seeking out any horror fiction, but I’ll definitely read the sequel to this book, Caliban’s War.

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